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2010 March 8 - 12:00 am

MONEY TREE: Idaho Lawmakers To Consider Rainy Day Fund for Colleges

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Lawmakers agreed to consider creating a rainy day fund for colleges, similar to the reserve account lawmakers set aside several years ago for the K-12 public school system.

Rep. Scott Bedke told the House Education Committee his bill would create a fund made up of three accounts and better equip state community colleges and universities to absorb funding losses in the future “so we can somehow stabilize the consequences of these downturns.”

Bedke, the House assistant majority leader, is co-sponsoring the legislation with Sen. Joe Stegner.

Bedke is also a member of the House Education Committee. That panel voted to introduce the measure as a bill and hold future hearings.

The Higher Education Stabilization Fund, or HESF, would be a cousin to the Public Education Stabilization Fund, or PESF, said Bedke, who told the committee other states have adopted similar buffers for universities and colleges.

One of the accounts would capture about $114,000 in yearly interest from student tuition and fee revenues at Boise State University, Idaho State University and Lewis-Clark State College, money that now flows into the state’s general fund.

The University of Idaho, created before Idaho’s statehood in 1890, retains this money. That would remain unchanged under the proposed legislation.

Lawmakers would fill the other two accounts when the economy turns around and there is surplus, with one arm to benefit state universities and the other to help community colleges, including the College of Southern Idaho, North Idaho College, the College of Western Idaho and Eastern Idaho Technical College.

Public colleges and universities, which were forced to slash spending by another $15.2 million in September to help offset shortfalls in state revenue, now face the possibility of more cuts.

Higher education leaders have cautioned further losses could threaten programs and put college out of reach for some students because of tuition and fee increases. They’ve also said lawmakers have relied on them too much to help make up for shortfalls in state revenue, turning the higher education budget into a bank account.

“This is in response to that very claim,” said Bruce Newcomb, Boise State’s director of government affairs. A former House speaker, Newcomb said lawmakers consulted him last summer on the creation of a reserve fund for higher education.

“I think it’s a needed tool,” Newcomb said. “So in the future, when there are surpluses, there’s money put in there so that higher education is no longer the bank.”

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