Legislators support student lobbying day

Michael Craighton

Dozens of students from the three Regents universities — Iowa State, the University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa — filled the Iowa Capitol on Monday in Des Moines.

UNI brought more than 100 students, said Emma Hashman, vice president of UNI’s student government and senior in political communication.

Iowa State made huge gains in its attendance this year as well.

“I am very pleased with the turnout,” said Jessica Bruning, director of ISU Ambassadors, the student lobbying arm of Iowa State’s Government of the Student Body and senior in political science.

Students from all of the universities spent the day speaking and listening to legislators, some Republican but primarily Democratic, about Gov. Terry Branstad’s proposed state budget, which would cut funding to the Regents universities. The ISU College Republicans were also present to demonstrate in favor of the budget cuts.

Many legislators were supportive not only of the students’ lobbying efforts but also of their cause. Representative Lisa Heddens, D-Ames, said she is not in favor of cutting funding to Regents universities.

“I’ve been one who’s supported increased funding for the Regent universities, not only as a legislator, listening to my constituents and how the cuts have impacted not only the professors and the quality of the programming, but also the students and hearing from the students and their families [about] the increase in tuition costs,” Heddens said. “But I’m also a parent and my daughter is a student at Iowa State. I can see from my own parent perspective the increase in the tuition costs.”

Heddens said she heard from a number of students who said they are considering going to school out of state because of the tuition costs.

“I don’t see the need for such drastic cuts,” Heddens said.

Representative Mark Smith, D-Marshalltown, said he is also opposed to cutting university budgets.

At a lobbying training session hosted by ISU Ambassadors Friday, Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, explained a budget forecast from Legislative Services Agency, a non-partisan agency that, among other things, is responsible for analyzing state expenditures. Quirmbach said the forecast demonstrated that the state actually operated at a budget surplus last year and is projected to do so again this year.

The forecast also shows that, without significant cuts anywhere, the state could still operate at a small surplus.

Other legislators were not as receptive to the issues the students were lobbying for or even to the lobbying itself.

Rep. Greg Forristall, R-Council Bluffs, said he was in support of the cuts.

“I regret they have to be made,” Forristall said. “I think that if we just stay calm for the next couple of years and allow the economy to grow that we will be in a better position to better support the universities in the future.”

His advice for students, should the budget cuts pass, is to “get through school as soon as you can.”

Tim Albrecht, press officer for the governor’s office, explained some of the reasons for the governor’s budget.

“It’s unfortunate that for years, the government has been spending more than it takes in and that’s why we find ourselves in this precarious position,” Albrecht said. “What Gov. Branstad is doing is precisely what he campaigned on and that is to not spend more money than we take in.”

He said the governor’s proposed budget will restore predictability and stability to budgets across the board to avoid the “erratic 10 percent across the board cuts that have sent not only school budgets but also city and local governments into chaos.”

Albrecht also said the problem is the budget shortfall next year that totals in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

“This may look balanced on paper, but that simply is not the case because of the budget shortfall next year,” he said. “[This] means a lot of shared sacrifice.”

He said the overall result will be to get the state on a solid foundation for the future.

Although opinion on the budget cuts is largely split along party lines, not all Republicans are on board with the governor’s proposal. Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, expressed concerns over how the budget cuts could adversely affect the finances of families with children in the university system. He said the real problem lies within the Regents.

“I do not like across-the-board budget cuts. I think it’s a lazy way to figure out our spending problem we have down here [in the Legislature],” Zaun said.

Zaun has a son at UNI and as a parent said he is very aware and concerned about the rising cost of tuition. Zaun has supported university students in the past by voting for bills such as one last year that would have capped college tuition.

Zaun also said the Board of Regents has a part in the blame for tuition costs.

“I was very, very disappointed to see one of our Board of Regents pointing the finger at the Legislature,” Zaun said.

Zaun expressed concern with the composition of the Board of Regents, specifically the fact that they are not connected to parents that have students in the university system. He said he would like to see parents on the Board of Regents.

Forristall also suggested another approach that could be made to address the funding problems in universities.

“I’m not sure that we need to have a whole set of presidents and all their staff at each university,” Forristall said. “I think one controller, one president, for the entire system is what we need to be looking at.”

His plan would set up Iowa universities much along the line of Wisconsin, Illinois, Nebraska and California systems.

Several legislators disagreed with Forristall’s suggestion.

“I don’t know that there’s much in the way over savings to be done there. The university presidents spend a lot of time raising money for the individual institution,” Quirmbach said.

Quirmbach felt that merging the universities would cause a loss of a sense of institutional loyalty, which is a large factor in why donors give.

ISU President Gregory Geoffroy also expressed concern with a system such as the one proposed by Forristall.

“That’s been suggested before,” Geoffroy said. “If you actually delve into that and look at it, those systems are actually more costly because you really create an extra layer of administration on top of the existing layer of administration.”

Geoffroy cited the University of Wisconsin system, in which each school has a president, provost and other staff, but also includes a chancellor overseeing the entire system.

Even under a model that entirely eliminated the top level of administration from the universities, Geoffroy was still skeptical. His primary concern was with fundraising.

“Alumni donors want to see the president of their institution, not the president of the system,” Geoffroy said.

However, some Republicans said the idea has merit.

“I definitely think that’s a conversation that needs to be had,” Zaun said. “I would assume that there are some efficiencies. You see towns and cities and schools doing that all over the state of Iowa.”

He said it would be something he would keep an open ear to and he would encourage conversation.

Branstad expressed concern over university administrations.

“There is some benefit to having the president on the campus, but I think we certainly need to look at ways that we can reduce administrative cost,” Branstad said.

Branstad also said a unified board of regents, like what is in place in Iowa, is good because it helps to identify and eliminate duplication.

“If you can reduce administrative costs, especially at a higher level, that’s where you can save a lot of money,” Branstad said. “I’ve always been very supportive of higher education but we also have an obligation to balance the budget.”

Another issue brought up was the overall effectiveness of the annual student lobbying day. While most legislators looked at the student lobbying effort favorably, others felt it was ineffective.

“I think they’re doing the right thing; they’re very polite and well-mannered,” Forristall said. “I can’t say that it does sway my opinion.”

Quirmbach strongly disagreed with Forristall’s sentiments.

“What he’s telling you is he’s refusing to listening,” Quirmbach said.

The legislators’ overall support for Regents Day was not limited to one side of the aisle.

“[The students] who are up here are very respectful, very good listeners,” Zaun said. “The people that are up here, I think, are the gems of some of the regent universities.”

He said the student lobbying is very effective.

“They definitely brought in a lot of numbers.”

Branstad also responded positively to student lobbying efforts.

“If it’s done in a constructive way, it can be helpful,” Branstad said. “If it’s more just a sort of screaming at people and calling them names, then no, I think it’s counterproductive.”

Regents Day exceeded the expectations of the ISU Ambassadors.

“I think we made a pretty big statement. I feel like for the most part our efforts weren’t deterred by opposing viewpoints,” Bruning said.

At the lobbying training session Friday, the three legislators in attendance encouraged students to follow up with their legislators on any issues or topics discussed. The contact information can be found on the Iowa Legislature’s website.