Iowa lawmakers warn regents could face more cuts

Gov. Reynolds urges universities to 'do a better job'

(File Photo) Gov. Kim Reynolds and University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld (left) listen to a presentation at the University Services Building on Wednesday, June 7, 2017. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Leaders at Iowa’s public universities spent the summer devising five-year tuition plans that envision increasing rates as high as 7 percent a year if lawmakers don’t come through with enough state funding.

But amid grim budget projections, some lawmakers say even status quo state funding is a long shot. In fact, some expect the Legislature to claw back some of the money it already committed this fiscal year to the public universities.

That takeback would compound the de-appropriations lawmakers leveled against the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa in the last session when they rescinded a combined $30-plus million of general education support for the 2017 and 2018 budget years.

“Based on what the (Revenue Estimating Conference) did, it appears to me that Iowans will see a de-appropriations bill soon,” Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, said in December.

Leaders of Iowa’s public universities declined to speculate whether they’d push for even higher tuition increases if there are deeper budget cuts made in the session that begins Monday.

“It would be inappropriate to comment before the Board of Regents makes a formal tuition request and before the Legislature has convened or adopted a single budget bill,” said UI spokeswoman Jeneane Beck.

State budget cuts will be among the first issues lawmakers tackle when they reconvene, based on new forecasts showing $7.2 billion in revenue for the current budget year — below projections set when the Legislature crafted its 2018 budget last spring.

The forecast could force lawmakers to find $45 to $90 million in reductions, and regents institutions are a likely target as they were also last year, some said.

House Minority Leader Mark Smith, D-Marshalltown, voiced opposition to steep cuts.

“We’ve already gone through the seven worst years for funding for public education,” he said. “We’re seeing Iowa families having to foot more of the bill for the UNI, ISU, UI. We’re seeing the highest tuitions, I think in the United States, for community colleges. More of that burden falls on Iowa’s working families than ever before.”

Board of Regents President Mike Richards said he expects to take up tuition rates for the 2018-19 academic year in February. The board postponed its discussion from the fall, when it typically occurs, because it’s committed to set rates only once this year and wants to see what lawmakers will do.

“One of the key messages we heard is that students and families do not want multiple tuition increases during the year,” he said in October.

In hopes of creating a tuition-setting system involving lawmakers and allowing students and families to plan, the regents convened a task force asking university presidents to submit five-year tuition plans.

It was through those plans that the UI and ISU requested 7-percent annual hikes for resident undergraduates if state support doesn’t improve.

UNI President Mark Nook proposed an annualized 5 percent increase with flat state funding, and was the only of the three to prepare a five-year model for the chance of a state funding cut — pitching a tuition spike of nearly 12 percent in the next academic year if appropriations drop 3.2 percent for 2019.

Because too few lawmakers responded to a task force invitation, the group canceled its legislature-specific meeting. And many criticized plans the universities put forward, saying the rates are too high.

GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds said she wants to keep higher ed affordable “and that’s where I come from any time we’re talking about increasing costs to Iowans that are attending our colleges and universities.”

She touted state efforts to make education affordable — reducing the need for remediation in math and science by better preparing high schoolers for postsecondary education, and growing the number of Iowans leaving high school with one or more years of college completed.

“And so I just challenge the regents,” Reynolds said. “I think they can continue to find efficiencies just like our state agencies have, and I would hope that they could do a better job. And so that should be the first place that they look before we take a look at raising tuition is to really do a self-assessment and make sure that there’s not some efficiencies and some reductions in cost that they could find within.”

Iowa’s regents in 2014 launched a sweeping efficiency review of their three campuses that cost nearly $6 million and is expected to save many millions more than that.

According to reports from the campuses this year, ISU has saved nearly $22.7 million; UNI has saved more than $16.4 million; and the UI reported saving $16.6 million, with $11 to $12 million in savings expected to continue annually.

Nationally, reports have emerged of universities raising tuition while still holding millions of tuition revenue in reserve. Iowa’s public universities are allowed to carry forward “unspent tuition revenue” according to regents spokesman Josh Lehman — though not all do now.

At the end of the 2017 budget year in June, the UI had no such balances. UNI had about a half-million and ISU had $2.6 million, according to data provided by Lehman.

ISU in 2017 reduced its pool of unspent tuition revenue sharply from $31.2 million in the 2016 budget year after the Legislature changed timelines for capital appropriations for two large projects, said ISU spokesman John McCarroll. Due to changes in the state funding schedule for ISU’s bioscience facilities, he said, “we utilized all but $2.6 million of the funds.”

The last time the UI held over any tuition revenue was in the 2013 budget year, when it reported a $1.7 million carry-over, according to the regents data. UI spokeswoman Beck said the institution doesn’t retain general fund reserves and instead chooses to make “strategic investments in people, programs, and/or capital projects,” like deferred maintenance work.

UNI’s tuition balances at year end have been declining since 2013. UNI spokesman Scott Ketelsen said his institution uses any unspent tuition revenue the following budget year on one-time projects or maintenance.

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

Rod Boshart and James Q. Lynch of The Gazette contributed.

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