Iowa House Republicans propose cuts to Regents universities in Taxpayers First Act


Graphic: Tyler Kingkade, Iowa State Daily

Since 1982, when Terry Branstad was first elected, state appropriations accounted for nearly 77 percent, while tuition was only 20 percent of general funding of the state’s three Regent universities. Today, tuition makes up 47 percent, and state appropriations only make up 41 percent. The Project on Student Debt has also consistently ranked Iowa as a leading state for average student debt.

Tyler Kingkade

DES MOINES — Republicans promised during the 2010 elections to make cuts in spending, and in the first bill they intend to vote on, Iowa State will be targeted.

Iowa House of Representatives Republicans — now holding a 60 to 40 seat advantage to the Democrats — laid out their proposals Monday with cuts in general funding to the three Board of Regents universities, to libraries and information technology acquisitions and canceling all sabbaticals — sometimes called professional or career development assignments — for 18 months.

Gov.-elect Terry Branstad, R, said he would review all of the proposals and applauded the House GOP for “seriously looking at changing the way we do business.”

“This is going to be a different budget — we have to change our lifestyle,” Branstad said at a budget briefing Jan. 3. “We have to make some tough decisions, and it’s not going to be easy.”

Iowa House Republicans released their proposals in what they called the “Taxpayers First Act,” which they intend to be the first bill voted on in the 2011 session.

The bulk of the bill includes cuts to various state programs, including a sizable portion regarding education.

  • Cuts the FY 2011 appropriations for Regents universities (University of Iowa, Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa).
    Cuts library acquisitions and Information Technology purchases at the Regents universities by 50 percent.
    Reduces acquisitions for the state library by 50 percent.
  • Freezes and cancels all Regents sabbaticals through the end of FY 2012.
  • Directs the Education Committee to consider changes to the tuition grant program.
  • Eliminates the funding for core curriculum and directs the Education Committee to develop new standards for K-12 students.
  • Cuts universal preschool, while directing the legislature to consider a voucher program.

“I think [House Republicans] are being very aggressive,” Branstad said, “to reduce the size and cost of government … As much savings as they can provide in this fiscal year, that’s the basis that we need to start from the next budget on.”

He added he will still seek a two-year budget out of the 2011 session.

One of Branstad’s largest goals, as he’s mentioned before, is to provide stability in education appropriations so as to avoid 10 percent across-the-board cuts in the middle of the fiscal year, although the Republican plan included immediate cuts for the current fiscal year.

Many of the cuts to higher education have been proposed by Republicans in recent years. They suggested eliminating sabbaticals for one year in 2010, claiming it would provide $6 million in savings. But when the Regents discussed cutting sabbaticals at their most recent meeting, all three university’s presidents fiercely defended the practice and fought against the idea.

The Board of Regents said the approved 95 sabbaticals this year will cost universities around $442,000, and last year’s sabbaticals generated $5.2 million in grants for the schools. The universities disagree with the $6 million figure Republicans provide and said instead it would only save $250,000.

Sabbaticals are practiced nationwide. Republicans have been joined by Danny Homan, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 61, in calling the practice “paid vacations.”

Regents universities have already approved far fewer sabbaticals than in previous years. And University of Iowa President Sally Mason, along with P. Barry Butler, Iowa’s interim executive vice president and provost, wrote in a column in the Des Moines Register that the “career development assignments” are work spent increasing their experience and knowledge, improving their long-term performance:

Faculty on development assignments [over the past five years] also wrote more than 100 books or monographs and more than 1,000 articles for research journals, improving their own expertise, advancing human knowledge in their fields and enhancing the university’s reputation as one of the nation’s top higher-education institutions:

The cost to the university for this program averages less than $400,000 per year, most of it spent to hire temporary replacement instructors. This cost amounts to less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the university’s budget and is significantly less than the grant funding that is typically generated by faculty on development assignments.

They also mentioned the university actively seeks funding from private sources as well toward their research.

The non-partisan Legislative Services Agency said canceling sabbaticals would only save $164,690 and cutting the library acquisitions would save $2,135,098 — far lower than Republican projections.

David Miles, president of the Iowa Board of Regents, responded to the proposed bill by pointing out Iowa’s three public universities have already tightened their belts and become more efficient over the past few years.

“We implemented numerous efficiency and productivity improvements, streamlined back office operations, eliminated positions, implemented early retirement incentive programs and reduced retirement plan contributions,” Miles said in a statement. “As a result, our contributions to state government reorganization initiatives provided significant cost savings for Iowa’s public universities and Special Schools, and for the state of Iowa.”

He went on to say Iowa’s universities contribute an annual economic impact of $8 billion and prepare a skilled workforce for the state’s economy.

Researchers at the Iowa Policy Project echo Miles’ sentiment, by pointing out employers seek a skilled labor market.

“If focus is really on jobs and economic growth, then it makes no sense to focus budget cutting efforts on the main engine for economic growth — which is education,” said Peter Fisher, research director at the Iowa Policy Project.

Democrats immediately opposed the proposed cuts to education included in the GOP plan.

Iowa Democratic Party Chairwoman Sue Dvorsky said the Republicans’ proposed cuts would “endanger job creation.”

“Unfortunately, the Republican plan puts our kids and small businesses last,” said State Rep. Tyler Olson, D-Cedar Rapids, who is Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Committee. “I’m extremely disappointed that the largest cost saving measure suggested by Republicans is to kick four-year-olds out of preschool next year.”

The initial elimination of universal preschool funding would save $69.9 million in FY 2012, $75.1 million in FY 2013. However, this does not take into account how much would be delegated for a voucher program.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said in a statement he was glad to see Republicans bringing ideas to the table, but criticized their plan for not addressing unemployment.

“Too many Iowans are still out of work, and this proposal turns a deaf ear on them and their needs,” Gronstal said. “In fact, many of the proposed cuts put a bullseye on the backs of Iowa’s working families by targeting services for our most vulnerable citizens and reducing our state’s quality of life.”

But Republicans defend their plan as a way to return surplus to the taxpayers and to stop the state from spending too much.

“This past November, Iowa voters sent a clear statement that they were tired of business as usual,” said Speaker of the House-elect Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha. “Voters said they no longer want a heavy-handed government that spends too much and borrows even more. House Republicans have come up with a plan that puts taxpayers first.”

Branstad said no final decisions had yet been made for the next year’s budget in regard to funding education. However, faced with the loss of revenue from temporary sources like the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, he was unsure if there could be any increase in funding for annual enrollment growth.

Newly appointed director of the Department of Education Jason Glass predicted at a news conference the appropriations would be “stormy” at best.

State Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he expected the worst to have passed in terms of funding higher education. Quirmbach cast doubt that higher education would get its funding back to where it needs to be and said he would seek to defend it from further reductions.

“Our budget, while not generous, is not in need of significant cuts,” Quirmbach said. “In fact, my goal is to begin restoring some of the funding that was cut from the Regents.”

The Iowa State Education Association is planning to lobby hard for increased funding to community colleges.

Community colleges currently receive less per student than other state education institutions: $2,053 was spent per student during FY 2010, while K-12 received $7,500 per student and Regents universities had $11,600.

The LSA said the direction for the Education Appropriations budget to combine the administrative functions at the Regents universities to find efficiencies would save $6.2 million a year.

The Republican plan also includes eliminating Just Eliminate Lies and Quitline Iowa, as well as other smoking cessation programs, which would save $6.7 million each fiscal year.

Another item, among the dozens of proposals included in the “Taxpayers First Act,” is to end all state benefits to adult illegal immigrants and enforce residency requirements for all human services programs. The LSA ranks those as having “minimal” or “unknown” savings.

The plan would eliminate the Generation Iowa Commission, a commission under the Iowa Department of Economic Development, aimed at retaining young people and recent college graduates in the state. Because of a dwindling population, Iowa will lose both a seat in the U.S. Congress and an Electoral College vote, reflective of the 2010 Census.

Branstad said during the campaign he intended to dismantle the IDED, replacing it with a new public-private partnership.