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Statehouse roundup, 1.24.23: In a rocky presentation, Tromp leaves budget questions unanswered

marlene tromp.jpeg
Darren Svan
/
Idaho Ed News
Boise State University President Marlene Tromp touted a series of milestones during her annual budget presentation Tuesday: a record 2022 graduating class, a record research portfolio, and $7.7 million in campuswide cost savings over the past two years. But on Tuesday, legislative budget-writers peppered Tromp with a list of questions that went unanswered.

Lawmakers grilled Boise State University President Marlene Tromp over a laundry list of budget items Tuesday.

And in most cases, legislative budget-writers didn’t get the answers they were looking for.

The tense exchanges came as the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee began its job of digging into the higher education budget proposals. And the hearing underscored ongoing tensions between Tromp and Statehouse conservatives — who have been openly critical of Tromp, and what they see as a growing social justice agenda at the state’s largest four-year school.

After her presentation, Tromp declined to speculate on how the legislative blowback might affect the fate of the higher education budget. But after spending much of Tuesday promising to send detailed responses to visibly skeptical JFAC members, Tromp acknowledged that Boise State has some homework to do.

“We will gladly answer any questions our legislators have,” Tromp said.

Among Tuesday’s unanswered questions, posed largely by Republicans on the committee:

Student fees. Rep. Wendy Horman wanted more details about Boise State’s student fee hike — a $304 increase that will generate some $4.9 million. “I think some of us were very caught off-guard,” said Horman, R-Idaho Falls, JFAC’s House co-chair. “That was a massive increase.”

Tromp said that some of the money went to support remote learning, and reiterated that some of the money went for expanded mental health services — a fee increase supported by students.

Horman followed up with a question about the role elected student leaders play in the fee-setting process. “If they make a recommendation, are you obligated to follow them?”

“I don’t know the answer to that,” Tromp said.

Last year’s $4 million. The 2022 higher education budget included a $4 million line item for Boise State, taken from budget reserves. Tromp said the money went into several areas, including student advising, and promised to provide lawmakers with a more detailed breakdown.

Public radio — and speakers’ fees. Sen. Scott Herndon, R-Sagle, asked how much the university provides to Boise State Public Radio; Jo Ellen DiNucci, Boise State’s associate vice president for finance and administration, promised to get back to him with numbers. Citing a recent MLK Living Legacy Celebration event featuring author Ibram Kendi, Herndon also requested a spreadsheet outlining Boise State’s speakers’ fees. “Of course, I would be happy to provide that,” Tromp said.

Risk management and replacement items. Rep. Josh Tanner, R-Eagle, drilled down on two line items in Gov. Brad Little’s higher ed budget recommendation: A $1 million increase in risk management costs, and $2.2 million for vehicles and other replacement items. “How many vehicles are you trying to purchase, and what are we actually doing with that money?” Tromp promised to follow up with a more detailed analysis.

A new vice provost. In two rounds of questions, Nampa Republican Sen. Ben Adams tried to pin Boise State down on the cost — and the need — for a new vice provost for inclusion and belonging.

Provost John Buckwalter said the position is designed to support new students — especially rural students who might be adjusting to living in a dorm with more classmates than their hometowns have residents. But he declined to provide a salary range for the as-yet unfilled position.

Adams repeatedly claimed Boise State has 28 employees in diversity, equity and inclusion, and sought a ballpark estimate for their salaries. Boise State officials declined to answer.

“I don’t have any idea what that refers to,” Tromp said after her presentation.

Following JFAC’s meeting, Adams said he wants Boise State to create a welcoming environment for its students. But he’s concerned that these efforts won’t be effective if they are pushed through the “lens” of DEI.

Adams said he arrived at his numbers — 58 DEI positions across the higher ed system, and 28 at Boise State — through research with a Senate staffer. He said he has offered to share his research with University of Idaho and Boise State officials.

“They sounded unsure about a lot of things,” Adams said of Boise State presenters.

Lewis-Clark, Idaho State pitch budgets

By comparison, Lewis-Clark State College President Cynthia Pemberton and Idaho State University President Kevin Satterlee had a much smoother morning in JFAC.

Pemberton touted Lewis-Clark’s efforts to bring face-to-face learning to a state prison in Orofino — and a nursing program that has received high national rankings for affordability and online offerings. She urged lawmakers to approve Little’s request for a 4% state employee pay raise — saying it would help increase the college’s instructors’ pay, which lags behind the average salary for an Idaho K-12 teacher.

“This is our reality at LC State,” she said. “This is a reality we need to address.”

Satterlee urged lawmakers to back two of Little’s line items for Idaho State: $7 million to expand the physician assistant’s program in Pocatello, and $6 million to develop a vacant site near Idaho State’s Meridian campus.

He made another pitch for a program that didn’t make the cut with legislators last year, and didn’t make Little’s budget: $450,000 to build Idaho State’s academic advising team. Through private donations, Idaho State has beefed up this department, and retention rates are improving. “The program is working,” he said.

The University of Idaho is scheduled to make its budget presentation Friday. And all four college and university presidents are slated to speak to the Senate Education Committee Tuesday afternoon.

This story was originally published by Idaho Ed News.