IOWA CITY — An $8 million funding bump that Gov. Terry Branstad proposed for Iowa’s public universities Tuesday as part of his fiscal year 2017 spending plan is far below the more than $20 million the Board of Regents requested for its campuses.
The board — which oversees five institutions including the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa — in September asked the Legislature for new general university dollars in the amounts of $4.5 million for the UI, $8.2 million for ISU and $7.7 million for UNI.
Regents justified the requests by citing UNI’s budget challenges, as a majority of its students pay lower in-state tuition rates; ISU’s swelling student body, which has surged 25 percent in five years; and UI’s focus on strengthening faculty for a growing student population.
Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, said that although the universities have good cases, this year’s state budget is “very tight.”
“I wasn’t surprised he cut back on the ask,” Dvorsky said about Branstad’s proposal. “And I wouldn’t be surprised if it even would be difficult to get the additional $8 million for the regents.”
Dvorsky said GOP lawmakers historically have been more fiscally conservative than Republican Branstad, making no new money for the regents a possibility.
“The governor outlined his budget,” Dvorsky said, “but Republicans won’t spend at that level.”
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Dvorsky countered the governor’s apparent proposal to allow the nine-member Board of Regents to divvy up any new money among its universities, saying, “That isn’t how it works.”
That is the job of the education appropriations subcommittee, according to Dvorsky, who said lawmakers have to be careful with UNI in particular.
“They are on the edge,” he said. “We have to make sure they have enough money.”
Dvorsky also stressed support for financially boosting Iowa State and the UI, both of which are seeing more students on campus.
Dvorsky said additional tuition increases and programmatic cuts could be a real possibility if there’s no new state money.
Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Waterloo, said even the $8 million proposal, depending on how it’s distributed, could have implications for UNI.
“It doesn’t cover the cost of living, it doesn’t cover innovation and investments, depending on how it’s apportioned, we could be right back into budget-cutting at UNI,” Danielson said. “It’s woefully inadequate.”
He said he and his colleagues hope to engage House Republicans in “good faith negotiations.”
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“I suspect that will be a long conversation,” he said. “But it’s one worth having.”
For the current budget year, lawmakers agreed on base appropriation increases of $5.1 million for UNI and $1.2 million for ISU, marking what Danielson called one of the best appropriation years UNI has had n a decade.
Even then, he said, UNI had to make accounting adjustments to achieve a balanced budget. And tuition for resident undergraduate students at all three public universities went up for the first time since 2012.
“So this regents number is ugly,” Danielson said.
Board of Regents spokesman Josh Lehman told The Gazette it’s “far too early to make any determinations” about what lower-than-requested allocations could mean for the institutions.
“The legislative session has just begun, and this is a long process,” he said.
In a statement, board President Bruce Rastetter expressed appreciation for continued support of Iowa’s public universities and pledged to work with the governor and legislators.
“We will continue to be good stewards with the money that is appropriated to us,” Rastetter said. “We will also continue to strive to find ways to be more efficient and effective with our funds.”