Guest Columnist

University of Iowa is leaving Iowans in the dark

Work continues on new boilers (right), near older boilers that currently burn energy pellets (left) at the University of
Work continues on new boilers (right), near older boilers that currently burn energy pellets (left) at the University of Iowa Power Plant in Iowa City on Friday, Feb. 8, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

The University of Iowa and Iowa Board of Regents are moving at breakneck speed toward approving a proposed University of Iowa plan to privatize management of its electricity and water systems in exchange for a $1 billion (my guesstimate because it’s still a secret) payment.

Like a hedge fund, the UI will invest this borrowed money in the markets, in hopes of realizing large capital gains to both payback the borrowed money to the investors and realize a financial gain to fund the university. Like a home mortgage, every dollar that the university receives in an upfront payment will have to be paid back with interest over the next 50-years.

Exotic and possibly risky financing with international investors’ money is the latest plan by Gov. Kim Reynolds, the regents and university leaders to support educating our Iowa college students. The plan relies on the performance of the markets to succeed. If for some reason the university can’t pay back the money, Iowa taxpayers will.

This elaborate, 50-year creative borrowing scheme is the result of the failure over the last decade by the Iowa Legislature and Reynolds to adequately fund our public universities.

Except for handful of legislative leaders and the governor’s office, Iowans have been left in the dark about the details of this deal. The assets of UI belong to Iowa taxpayers not any board or unelected administrator. We have not privatized the UI yet. Iowans deserve a far more transparent process.

Iowans will have no opportunity to express their views on the final details At the regents meeting today, they will reveal the successful bidder and the amount of the deal moments before they vote to approve the contract. Their agenda does not allow for any public input.

Taxpayers deserve some straight answers to basic questions before the Board of Regents rubber-stamps the deal. Some of the questions include:

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Who is the company and what is their expertise and experience operating both a power plant and drinking water system? Where is the money coming from?

How much money will need to be paid back?

Who is financially responsible if the plan fails?

Why does the University of Iowa continue to pay all the costs of staff, fuel and capital improvements to operate the utility systems?

Why have Iowan’s been left in the dark?

This is no way to run a public university. This is not a long-term solution to fund higher education. Iowa taxpayers and UI faculty, staff and students deserve better.

State Sen. Joe Bolkcom is a Democrat from Iowa City.

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