“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.” Fittingly, it was an educational writer (William Edward Hickson) who popularized this old proverb. The sentiment has a dual meaning when it comes to one of the recommendations of the governor’s Higher Education Task Force: the so-called “Adult Completer” scholarship. It is intended for students who attended college for a while, moved on to other things prior to graduating, and want another shot at a degree. For state lawmakers, it means we will try to succeed in 2018 where we failed the last two sessions. Perhaps the third time will be the charm.
The State Board of Education recently approved all of the task force’s recommendations. However, board members noted that the “Adult Completer” scholarship proposal may need some revamping in order to get through the Legislature next year. The scholarship is aimed at adults who have already earned some college credits but have been out of school for several years. According to a report in Idaho Education News earlier this year, about 28 percent of Idahoans over age 25 have some college credits, but left school before receiving a degree.
The “Adult Completer” idea first surfaced in 2016 when legislation was proposed to earmark $5 million in scholarships to those with at least 30 credits who had been out of school for at least three years. The measure, which I voted for, failed in the Senate 16-17 (two of my colleagues were absent for that vote). In 2017, a similar $3 million bill died in committee. It would have provided scholarships to eligible applicants of up to $3,000 per year for up to four years.
Critics of the “Adult Completer” scholarship claim it rewards people for dropping out of school. I seriously doubt students who have completed the equivalent of one year of college have it in their minds to drop out of school and then wait three years in hopes of qualifying for a scholarship. Students dropping out of college is not unique to Idaho. According to a report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States has the highest drop-out rate in the industrial world.
Students drop out of college for all kinds of reasons. However, just about every study shows that the main factor is the cost. There is also the issue of balancing school with a job. According to a 2013 U.S. Census report, a whopping 71 percent of America’s undergraduate students work. One in five of those students clock in 35 hours a week year-round. Balancing that kind of work load with school is tough for any adult, let alone a teenager who is attending college for the first time. It’s easy to see how handling a job, classes, studying and tests would be overwhelming to new students. Also, we were all 18 once. It’s safe to say that our decision-making skills were not as prudent at that age as they were in our mid to late 20s. Adjusting to college life — with all of its new challenges and experiences — can be overwhelming for many young students. Sometimes, they need a few years to mature before they can tackle college and see it through to the end.
The Higher Education Task Force has a simple goal: to improve the percentage of Idaho’s high school students who go on to college or a post-secondary program. Right now, the state’s “go-on” rate is less than 50 percent — among the worst in the nation. If that dismal percentage does not improve, Idaho will continue to be a magnet for low-wage, low-skilled jobs. As a lifetime educator, I can’t accept that state of affairs. There is no silver-bullet solution to this problem. We have to take a holistic approach. The “Adult Completer” scholarship provides opportunity for older, more experienced students who may have been in over their heads the first time around. Idahoans are hard-working people who want to prosper and provide opportunities for their families. I believe the “Adult Completer” scholarship program can help provide these opportunities. That’s why we legislators must “try, try, try again” to pass this legislation.
It is important to understand some of the funding history for our roads and bridges. Vehicle registration fees were first introduced in 1913 and ranged from $15 to $40 based on horsepower. The first fuel tax of two cents per gallon was assessed in 1923 and over time the registrations and fuel tax increased. By 1996 fuel tax reached 25 cents per gallon. The fuel tax was flat from 1996 to 2015 which resulted in a $225 million annual shortfall in maintaining our transportation system. Due to inflation, we were trying to maintain our roads and bridges with less money each year.
In Idaho we have several highway jurisdictions. The Idaho Transportation Department is responsible for state highways and the interstate systems. Highway districts, counties and cities are responsible for our local roads and bridges.
Funding comes from several different sources. ITD gets funding through the federal FAST Act (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation) and from state fuel tax and registration fees. The local system is funded through a portion of state fuel and property taxes. The funding formula used to divide the first 25 cents of the state fuel tax is 57 percent to ITD, 38 percent to local jurisdictions (highway districts, counties and cities), with the remaining five percent to Idaho State Police.
In 2015 House Bill 312 was signed into law and increased registration fees and the fuel tax by seven cents per gallon. This was the first fuel tax increase in 19 years. This bill stipulated that increased funding would be split 60 percent to ITD and 40 percent to the local jurisdictions. Legislative intent language specified that all new money raised by this bill shall be used exclusively for road and bridge maintenance, and replacement projects. The use of general fund money for transportation was a shift in philosophy for Idaho that had previously solely funded transportation through fuel tax and registration “user fees.”
House Bill 312, also known as the “surplus eliminator”, created the Strategic Initiatives Program. The Surplus Eliminator transferred 50 percent of any year-end excess general fund cash balance into the Strategic Initiatives Program, managed by ITD. The other 50 percent goes into the state Budget Stabilization Fund (savings). Surplus money was for state projects only (no split with locals). ITD’s use of this money is to enhance its Strategic Initiatives Program. Idaho’s six regions compete for projects based on safety, mobility, economic opportunity, repair and maintenance of bridges, and purchase of right-of-way.
The “surplus eliminator” had a two-year sunset clause and would have expired this year, but was extended by the Legislature for two more years. In the language for the extension, the surplus money will now be split 60 percent ITD and 40 percent for the local jurisdictions. I have always worked to get the locals included in the surplus because when commuters drive from point A to point B, they don’t care which jurisdiction maintains the road. They just want a seamless transportation system.
Idaho has a strong export economy with much of what we produce and manufacture shipped to other states and countries. In order to support the movement of our products we need safe, reliable roads and bridges. Most of the bridges in Idaho are at or beyond their intended lifespan. In Legislative District 25 — rural Twin Falls and Jerome County — there are 199 bridges, 131 on the local system.
As a member of the House Transportation Committee and a former Filer Highway District Commissioner, I will continue the discussion on proper funding of our state and local infrastructure. I welcome your comments and suggestions.