Legislators defend, attack budget action

Wendy Weiskircher

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a four-part series examining the effects of the cuts on some major areas of the ISU budget. This article will examine the Legislature’s reasons for appropriating less money to the regent universities.

The Iowa Legislature has been adjourned since Wednesday, but mixed feelings remain on the Senate floor after senators passed the amended education spending package, restoring about $3 million to the ISU budget.

Republican legislators and Gov. Tom Vilsack struck a compromise late Monday night to increase the total higher education spending package by $11 million. The compromise was approved by the Senate, and the $959 million education bill was passed before the Senate adjourned.

“I think we ended up with a number that most parties can live with,” said Rep. Brad Hansen, R-Carter Lake and chairman of the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee. “We knew that we would be negotiating and finding additional priorities.”

Other areas in the education budget, such as K-12 funding, have been increased instead, said Sen. Don Redfern, R-Cedar Falls and vice chairman of the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee. More money for class size reduction and at-risk programs has been added to this year’s budget.

“That money has increased significantly,” Redfern said. “We’ve made some real strides there.”

However, while the state continues to claim education as a top priority, some senators think the repercussions will fall on the students.

“Our lip service says it is [a top priority],” said Sen. Johnie Hammond, D-Ames. “I hope the Board of Regents will be as restrained as possible in raising tuition for the universities. I think there will be financial issues for students in the universities and community colleges.”

While the state money is expected to be enough to keep the regent universities afloat, some senators said this year should not set a precedent for the future of state funding.

“We need to improve on the regent schools because I do believe they are critical to our state and our future,” Redfern said. “We need to ensure they can continue to grow and expand. I think we have given them enough to keep growing, but not enough to take that next step.”

A Democratic effort to restore the education spending package to the Governor’s original recommendation, which would have increased the appropriation to Iowa State by more than $3.3 million, was defeated on the Senate floor.

“Our caucus felt strongly that the compromise wasn’t enough,” said Sen. Mike Connolly, D-Dubuque. “We tried to make some amendments, but they were defeated.”

Hammond was one of the few senators to vote no on the appropriation bill.

“I think it’s going to be difficult to live within that budget,” she said. “I think we should have put more money into the higher education bill. Like we have been saying all afternoon, we are balancing the budget on the backs of students.”

The additional money will keep the universities functioning, some senators said, but improvements in the budget are necessary in the future.

“It is certainly a lot better than how it was when it came to us from the House,” Redfern said. “I was very pleased with the additional money we were able to move up, but I think we need to do better in the future.”

Even with the increased budget, Iowa State will still receive about $6 million less than the original base request. Some legislators say the possible tuition increases probably will not drive Iowa students to out-of-state colleges.

“It’s more likely that it will drive students out of college,” Hammond said. “It might be the case for out-of-state students that they would decide to go elsewhere.”

Hansen said the quality of the schools is the biggest attraction for the Iowa regent universities.

“I frankly think the quality of Iowa schools is our big calling card,” he said. “I would argue that students would stay in state even without this increase [in tuition].”

Despite the gap between the requests and the approved bill, most legislators said education is still a top priority of the state.

“I think education is our No. 1 priority,” Connolly said. “Education should have come first, and everything else should have come last. Education is the strength of Iowa, and I think some students are really going to be hurt by this.”