Iowa Senate passes education budget bill

Bill includes tuition freeze at state universities for second consecutive year

The Iowa Senate voted Monday to approve a $986 million education budget for fiscal 2015 that would cover a tuition freeze at state universities, fund K-12 education reforms with $49 million and boost operating money for community colleges by $8 million.

“There’s something in here for a lot of people,” said Sen. Brian Schoenjahn, D-Arlington, floor manager of Senate File 2347.

Senators voted 27-22 to send the education measure to the Iowa House with a request to boost current spending for regent universities, community colleges, the state education and blind departments, and the College Aid Commission by $87 million beginning July 1. Republican Sen. Rick Bertrand of Sioux City joined 26 majority Democrats in supporting the bill.

Senate File 2347 would boost state university operations by 4 percent and provide an extra $4.4 million for the University of Northern Iowa, to acknowledge it has a higher percentage of in-state students, as lawmakers and Gov. Terry Branstad agree to freeze resident tuition for a second time next fiscal year.

The regent universities would be in line for $584 million, a $24 million increase, while the community colleges’ $201 million funding level would be an $8 million increase to help keep tuition affordable, Schoenjahn said. Private college student aid would be increased as well in SF 2347, he noted.

The bill included $2 million for the Iowa Reading Resource Center to improve the teaching of literacy skills – a level that Branstad hoped would be boosted to $3.9 million during negotiations with majority Republicans in the House.

Backers said the education budget will was intended to open doors to higher education, expand skilled workforce initiatives and help grow Iowa’s middle class. The bill also would increase investments in helping teachers improve, help kids learning to read, and freeze tuition for resident undergraduate students at Iowa’s public universities, Schoenjahn said.

The measure also included $40.3 million for worker training to target specific local skill shortage areas and train workers for those jobs. Provisions called for $6 million in ACE funding and $5 million for the Kibbie Grants which help adults seeking certification in the most “in-need” career fields.

Another provision of the bill sets aside $1 million to fund anti-bullying measures in K-12 schools, including $700,000 in grants for local districts to devise their own approaches to combat harassment or bullying at schools or off campus and online.

In other action, senators approved a measure that would extend the state tax break on ethanol-blended fuel for one year by a 49-0 vote. Sen. Tim Kapucian, R-Keystone, offered a “hybrid gas tax” proposal that sought to lower the current state gas tax to 16 cents a gallon but then access a 5 percent excise tax that would bring the total to 28.5 cents per gallon – generating increased revenue to address a $215 million deficit for critical transportation needs that state officials have identified. However, the amendment was ruled irrelevant or “non-germane” to House File 2444.

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