Student leaders lobby Legislature

Carrie Kreisler

Des Moines – Student leaders headed to the state capitol Thursday to voice their concerns about the budget allocations affecting education at Iowa State and the other Regents institutions.

Government of the Student Body representatives joined University of Iowa and University of Northern Iowa student government representatives at a press conference to tell legislators why higher education should be made a priority in Iowa.

As the state makes last-minute decisions on how money will be allocated for the rest of the current fiscal year, college students wanted to express the importance of the state universities.

The three Regents institutions pushed for the use of the rainy-day fund, or the state economic emergency fund, because extreme budget cuts have drastically impacted the education and students’ accessibility at those universities.

Charlie Johnson, GSB vice president, said parents in particular “aren’t really up in arms over it, which is not really understandable.”

He said if parents had a 5-year-old child they thought would attend a state university, they would probably care more, knowing how much it would cost.

GSB Speaker of the Senate Andrew Kothenbeutel said the Legislature doesn’t want to dip into the fund because it is concerned there won’t be enough money on reserve for the next two or three years.

Sixty percent of the state’s budget is allocated to education, but the focus is on K-12 education.

Kothenbeutel said the state will not cut from K-12 education because that helps give Iowa a good environment for families. Consequently, higher education takes all the hits.

“Normally our voice isn’t that strong. College students don’t vote a lot and they don’t pay much in taxes,” he said.

That is why approximately 40 students from the three Regents institutions rallied to let the legislators hear their concerns.

“Higher education cannot continue to be the mortar of the problems [because of] budget cuts,” said Andrew Zahn, speaker of the senate for Northern Iowa Student Government. “The rainy-day fund is there for a purpose. Why aren’t we utilizing it?”

“Because of the rain, we’re up to our necks,” said Andy Tofilon, GSB president. “If the water gets any deeper, we’ll be drowning.”

As Nick Klenske, U of I student body president, was speaking on behalf of students at Iowa and the other Regents institutions, the Minnetonka, Minn., concert choir could be heard in the background.

“The angels are singing on behalf of higher education,” Tofilon said. “K-12 and higher education must be linked together.”

Klenske said the legislature needs to recognize the importance of all education.

“We need to start looking at a K-16 system,” he said.

T.J. Schneider, GSB director of academic affairs, said college students need to get the quality of education they deserve and are paying for.

In addition to increasing tuition, the cuts to programs, faculty and staff will decrease the quality of education, Schneider said.

The issue goes beyond tuition hikes. Not only will four-year graduation plans be apt to break because of fewer sections of classes, but students may not even come to Iowa State because of the elimination of some programs, Schneider said.

Tofilon said if the legislators want students to stay in Iowa, they need the incentive to stay here.

“What we’re saying is `yeah, balance the budget, but keep us in mind,’ ” Kothenbeutel said.

Rep. Jodi Tymeson, R-Winterset, said the legislature has agreed with the governor and they don’t want to raise taxes. However, they have considered a 1 percent sales tax increase to help fund schools.

Five percent of the budget is supposed to go to the cash reserve fund, which is $237 million, Tymeson said.

“The governor used $66 million to cover the deficit at the end of ’01,” she said, “which leaves $171 million.”

But the Legislature has already agreed to take out $45 million to be used for K-12 and other costs.

“The more students’ voices are heard, the more legislators will keep their concerns in line when they make their critical decisions,” said Mike Banasiak, GSB director of government relations.

The issue of concern now is the threat of more cuts this year, he said.

“Overall, it went very well. The legislators seemed very receptive to our concerns,” Banasiak said.

“We just hope that they will be able to act on them and that we increased their knowledge – and the state of Iowa’s knowledge – about higher education and its needs for the future.”

He said it is hard to say right now what will happen. Within the next few weeks, the Legislature will be forecasting the 2003 budget.

The bill debated by the Legislature Wednesday night was on the appropriations for the 2002 budget.

This includes a possible additional 2.6 percent cut statewide for the current fiscal year, Banasiak said.

The bill is probably going to be passed back and forth between the House and the Senate a few more times before changes are made and decided on, he said.

Originally, furloughs were going to be required for all the departments, but the House passed an amendment “to give the departments the ability to work within their budget,” Tymeson said.

“In my mind, an economic emergency is not too much spending,” she said.