Republicans aim to cut $48 million from universities while blocking tuition increases

Tyler Kingkade

Iowa House Republicans’ first major bill would cost Iowa’s public universities $48 million while tying their hands by forbidding schools from raising tuition more than the increase in the current Higher Education Price Index.

A provision in House File 45, or the Taxpayers First Act, would cut $10 million from the three Regents universities. It would also freeze sabbaticals, or “career development assignments,” for 18 months.

Republicans have claimed a freeze on sabbaticals would save $6 million, and tried to pass it last year in the minority.

The sabbatical cuts would only save $164,690, but could potentially cost the universities more than $8 million in revenue. Research and work done during sabbaticals often attract grants, sponsorships and other outside sources of funding for the university, according to the non-partisan Legislative Services Agency.

“Among the most productive and brightest of our faculty over the years have been not one, but several very productive sabbaticals,” said Dave Swenson, staff research economist at Iowa State.

Sabbaticals lead to opportunities to do new research, Swenson said, which brings money into the state and funds graduate students.

“But more than that you’re developing knowledge,” Swenson said. “And in-it-of-itself, developing knowledge is a valuable thing for the state of Iowa — in every discipline, not just the hard sciences.”

Critics of sabbaticals have called them “paid vacations.”

“It’s awful hard to look a taxpayer in the eye and say, ‘You need to pay higher property taxes so that a professor can take a year off from teaching to go research superstitions on the Middle Ages or write a musical,'” said House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha.

Cutting sabbaticals was discussed in December by the Board of Regents, but the state’s three university presidents adamently defended the practice.

“I would argue that just 22 faculty members out of our entire faculty is a very worthwhile investment for us to make, the cost is very low and the benefit will be tremendous,” said President Gregory Geoffroy at the regents meeting in December.

Beyond the initial cuts, the Regents would lose $15 million in each of the following two fiscal years.

Tuesday night, the Iowa legislature stayed late at the Capitol to hear from 93 concerned citizens, speaking largely against the measure. Of the 93, 20 signed up to support the legislation, eight were undecided and 65 identified themselves as opposed.

People were also allowed to submit comments through e-mail if they could not attend in person.

The comments, 436 out of 479 public comments submitted either orally or electronically to the Iowa House Appropriations Committee were in opposition to the cuts to smoking cessation programs, education, environmental protections, health-care and transportation programs proposed in the Taxpayers First Act, an Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement analysis of the public record showed Wednesday.

Just two speakers defended public universities, Lee Henely of the University of Iowa student government and Joel Anderson, University of Northern Iowa student body president.

Anderson explained to lawmakers some departments are hurt more than others by cuts from the state.

“This proposed legislation promises to increase student loan debt,” Anderson said, “which forces many students to leave Iowa post-graduation and have the potential to push students out of the universities who can no longer afford a college education.”

Iowa is ranked to be the state with the third highest average student loan debt by the Project on Student Debt.

“When students cannot afford education on the public level, can we truly call it public education?” Anderson asked.

Iowa State’s student body president Luke Roling was listed to speak, but when his name was called he apparently was not present.

After the public forum, House File 45 was amended to limit any increase in tuition, fees or other charges at the institutions of higher education under its control during a school year to no more than four percent of the amount of the tuition, fees or other charges in effect during the previous school year.

Last session, four Republican Representatives offered legislation that would have tied tuition increases to the Higher Education Price Index and required public hearings before any increase could move forward.

Republicans also included a cut to library aquisitions. Swenson said a library is the “core and heart” of a university and criticized the idea of cuts to them.

“It just bespeaks of complete ignorance of the role and function of a library to a world class institution,” Swenson said.

Swenson warned undermining higher education and thus depleting human capital or the skill of the available workforce in Iowa, would hinder the state’s ability to compete for jobs.


Update: The Iowa House passed HF45 Wednesday night on a party-line split, 60-40. Library aquisitions were cut in the final version.

The final bill limited tuition increases to not more than the Higher Education Price Index, not four percent.