Higher education

Iowa GOP plans millions less for regents, higher education

Critics predict higher college tuition#xa0;

Beardshear Hall on the Iowa State University campus in Ames on Tuesday, Mar. 31, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Beardshear Hall on the Iowa State University campus in Ames on Tuesday, Mar. 31, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Republicans who control the Iowa Legislature passed a $908.4 million education budget Tuesday for fiscal 2018 that reduces spending for regent universities by millions, ending funding for the acclaimed flood center in Iowa City and sustainable agriculture center in Ames.

“This is a starting point,” said Rep. Cecil Dolecheck, R-Mount Ayr, co-leader of the House-Senate education budget subcommittee that voted 8-5 along party lines to advance the bill to the House Appropriations Committee, with possible full House consideration yet this week.

“Unfortunately, the money is less than what we had hoped but that’s the situation that we’re in,” Dolecheck said. “I think this budget does establish our priorities.”

The measure would pare back funding for operations at the University of Iowa and Iowa State University by 6.25 percent compared with the fiscal 2017 budget passed one year ago. The University of Northern Iowa would get about 3.2 percent less.

“All cuts are difficult, and we will continue to manage any further cuts as best we can,” said regents spokesman Josh Lehman in a statement.

Community colleges would see slightly higher funding, while private college tuition grants would be cut by 6.25 percent from last year’s funding level — before lawmakers and Gov. Terry Branstad had to reduce programs as growth in state revenue lagged.

Majority Republicans last week set spending targets to reflect the slower-than-expected growth in state revenues, and Tuesday’s education portion was down about $10.4 million from the current fiscal year’s already downwardly revised spending plan.

“It is a disgrace,” said Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames. “I think the long-term consequences of this are going to be devastating. The result inevitably is going to be higher tuition.”

Other Democrats on the subcommittee expressed concern the bill was on a fast track when many of them were seeing it for the first time Tuesday. Most Iowans would have had less than 24 hours to study the impacts before it moves through the full committee and to the House floor at unusual speed.

“This bill is nothing but cut after cut after cut after cut,” said Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Waterloo, a new member of the subcommittee. “Here we are today with what I would consider probably the worst education budget in Iowa history and I’m not sure it’s the way that Gov. Branstad wanted to close the chapter on his career here in Iowa.”

He said much of the budget pain was “self-inflicted,” given that state revenues still are growing albeit not as fast as once predicted.

Dolecheck and Sen. Tim Kraayenbrink, R-Fort Dodge, said there was flexibility to move some of the specific funds around but that the total available for spending in the education area for fiscal 2018 would not change.

For instance, Dolecheck said, the $1.5 million eliminated for the Iowa Flood Center could be restored if UI officials say it is more important than something else in their $217.7 million allotment.

“I heard Gov. Branstad say over and over and over again what a valuable resource the Iowa Flood Center was and how it’s helped Iowans prepare for flood dangers last year,” said Senate Minority Leader Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids. “I don’t believe they will go ahead and do that because it would be such a calamity to do that. I think they’ll realize that eliminating the funding for the Iowa Flood Center is not a practical way or a smart way of dealing with the budget situation.”

The budget would also do away with the entire $397,417 for ISU’s Leopold Center, which among other things, aims to reduce the negative impacts of agriculture on natural resources and rural communities.

The news of a bleaker 2018 for Iowa’s public universities comes as regents are set next week to approve a downwardly revised 2017 budget.

In a report, each university outlined measures taken:

l The UI cut $9.2 million in the current year, spending less on non-recurring investments, building repairs and student aid — reflecting scholarship reductions for those who failed to meet grade standards.

l ISU, which had to cut nearly $9 million, further delayed maintenance projects and stalled faculty and staff job searches. It also cut costs for professional and scientific supplies and professional development.

l UNI, which had to cut $2.5 million, found savings through “an adjustment to tuition revenue based on a lower than budgeted enrollment;” the elimination of adjunct faculty positions; savings from phased retirements; and keeping open position unfilled.

l Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

Vanessa Miller of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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