Idaho House lawmakers once again revealed a growing division inside their chamber on March 21 over a dicey community college budget debate.
Earlier this year, state budget writers settled on allocating the state’s three community colleges nearly $40 million, or a 6.7 percent funding boost for next fiscal year. Budget bills seldom change once making it out of the appropriations committee, but they still need the approval of the full House and Senate.
Lawmakers in the House ultimately passed the budget on a 48-22 vote, but not before spending most of the morning floor session March 21 criticizing some line items in the funding proposal and the budget-setting process. The body spent more time debating the relatively small $40 million community college budget than they did the day before debating the $1.7 billion public schools budget — which faced minimal opposition and no questions on March 21.
“It was disappointing to hear that (the budget committee) declined to hear public input. They only got testimony from agencies, who are special interest groups who want that funding,” said Republican Rep. Ron Nate, of Rexburg. “So citizen input is left to us. If there’s even one questionable line item, we should reconsider this bill. ”
Rep. Maxine Bell, co-chair of the Joint Finance Appropriations Committee, says her panel used to hold hearings allowing the public to submit testimony on budgets but stopped after attendance dwindled.
“We serve state agencies, it’s the state agencies who serve the public,” said Bell, a Republican from Jerome.
The community college budget for fiscal year 2017-2018, which starts July 1, includes new funding for summer outreach programs at the College of Southern Idaho; advisers for special student populations at the College of Western Idaho; and a Title IX coordinator to ensure compliance and training at North Idaho College.
“We cut the budgets for community colleges and universities during the downturn in 2008 and we haven’t given them that money back,” Bell said. “This was our time to help them out.”
The House has been plagued this session by Republican infighting, with some members unhappy over how legislative leaders steer the chamber. However, so far, detractors have failed to gain enough momentum to kill a budget proposal or squash major policy bill.