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Boise State budget pitch turns testy

Marlene Tromp
Posted at 10:59 AM, Jan 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-29 12:59:22-05

This article was written by Kevin Richert and Clark Corbin of Idaho Education News.

In a tense budget hearing Friday morning, President Marlene Tromp touted Boise State University’s coronavirus response, before fielding a series of pointed questions about campus politics.

“What we have is an agenda of serving our students and serving our state,” Tromp told the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.

In the weeks to come, JFAC will write a budget for the state’s higher education system — and consider a recommendation from Gov. Brad Little, which would cover some but not all of Boise State’s coronavirus-related losses.

But Friday’s budget hearing also foreshadowed the debate that will likely unfold later this session. Reps. Ron Nate and Priscilla Giddings — two hardline Republican conservatives assigned to JFAC last year — pushed Tromp on social issues.

“Our constituents are upset and want some action taken, against BSU in particular,” said Nate, R-Rexburg.

Nate ticked off a series of concerns, echoing a recent white paper co-authored by the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a conservative lobbying group. He accused Boise State University of supporting the “Marxist cause” of Black Lives Matter; severing its law enforcement contract with the Boise Police Department; and pushing a coffee shop off of campus because of its owner’s vocal support of law enforcement.

Tromp pushed back on some points. She said Boise State puts no state dollars into Black Lives Matter, and said Boise State did not sever its Boise Police Department contract. (The university entered a fifth and final year of the contract in August.) “There has been a great deal of misinformation,” she said.

Nate also drew a warning from JFAC’s House co-chair, Rep. Rick Youngblood, R-Nampa, who admonish Nate to stick to funding requests.

“We’re a budget committee, not a political policy committee,” Youngblood said.

Nate also pushed another talking point from the Freedom Foundation white paper. He asked Tromp if she would support breaking the higher education budget into four bills, so other institutions could be shielded from the controversy Boise State “has invited from the Legislature.”

Youngblood told Tromp she didn’t need to answer the question. But Tromp noted that the state’s four-year institutions have entered a time of “extraordinary collaboration,” and she voiced her support for Little’s budget recommendation.

The bulk of Boise State’s hour-long budget presentation did focus on numbers, as Tromp cited several success stories:

  • Boise State’s research portfolio reached a record $58 million last year, a 41 percent increase over five years.
  • First-year student retention has approached 80 percent, up from 60 percent 15 years ago.
  • The six-year graduation rate has neared 54 percent. A decade ago, the graduation rate was 30 percent.

But the pandemic has caused short-term budget cuts and long-term restructuring, Tromp said. The university saved $21.9 million in the short term, through measures such as furloughs and a hiring freeze. Cutting 194 permanent campus positions will yield $15.9 million in permanent savings, she said.

But Boise State faces ongoing revenue issues — from canceled room-and-board contracts to lost income from athletics and campus events.

Little has recommended draining a higher education savings account to cover some revenue losses from 2020; Boise State would receive $4.3 million from this transfer. A newly passed federal coronavirus stimulus law will provide Boise State $15.1 million that it could use to offset future losses.

Even so, Boise State is facing a net revenue loss of $13 million, Tromp and university CFO Mark Heil told budget-writers.

As the heated hearing wrapped up, Tromp received public plaudits from one budget-writer. Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, said she wanted to make a point of praising Tromp, and Boise State, for its contributions to the community.

“I am afraid she may leave the room without knowing that,” Ward-Engelking said.