HEADLINES : Iowa
Iowa lawmakers split over higher ed funding
By this weekend, Iowa may finally resolve the budget debates that have plagued the state for the past 100 days.
"We've got a shot at getting out of here Saturday," said Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, though the Republican also cautioned, "I don't see the logistics of how we get out Friday," before noting that large sections of the budget still awaited resolution.
Among those unresolved budget categories is the controversial higher education spending plan, which will determine the amount of state funds allocated to Iowa's public and regent universities. Before lawmakers can pass a state budget, the warring parties must compromise on the $65 million difference between their higher education plans.
Iowa's 2012 legislative session is a house divided. Democrats who hold a Senate majority proposed adding $34 million in higher education funding to Iowa's budget, while the Republican-controlled House countered with an opposing proposition to slash $31 million from the same funding allocation. Both parties have expressed an unwillingness to back down in the debates that have dragged on for months, with Republicans protesting a lack of transparency and responsibility on the part of the universities to whom the funds are granted, and Democrats emphasizing the significance of public education to the economic health of the state.
Iowa has already seen significant changes to its higher education budget; state funding for its public universities has decreased by 40% in the past decade (after adjustments for inflation). According to the Iowa Board of Regents, fiscal year 2010 marked the first time that Iowa contributed less financial support to the general education budget of its public universities than what was paid by students and their parents in tuition fees, with those tuition dollars totaling nearly 60% of the state's total public college and university budgets (ranking Iowa at 10th highest in the nation for % of state university tuition left to students and their families).
The decrease in public funding accompanies rising tuitions--or at least it will if the Senate Democrats persuade the House to adopt their proposal, which supports the regent universities' plan to boost yearly in-state tuition by 3.75% next year. House Republicans argue that universities should freeze tuition hikes in rough economic times, and claim that their $31 million in higher education funding reduction would mean less of a financial burden on the shoulders of students and their families. This debate lies at the heart of the budget discussion: what should Iowa's priorities be, and how can the state afford them?
Many Iowans are joining in the debate, from parents irate over the fact that 20% of all tuition dollars go to provide scholarships for other students, to students at the University of Northern Iowa who traveled to the state capitol to protest the potential funding cuts (UNI student body president Spencer Walrath argued that every dollar invested in higher education will result in a $14 return in economic activity). In light of a strained domestic economy, as well as plummeting U.S. test scores and decreasing academic success stories, the quality of higher education is likely to be a vital part of America and Iowa's hope for the future.
Sen. Brian Schoenjahn (D), chair of the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee, believes that too few voters are paying attention to the significance of higher education, lamenting a "mode of anti-government" and the way that "anti-government is spilling onto anti-education and anti-spending" before grimly concluding that Iowa's citizens "voted against spending but they forgot to ask on what." House Republicans, however, soundly reject the linking of "anti-spending" policies with an "anti-education" worldview. They cite "entitlement attitudes," the controversial tuition set-aside program, administrative salary increases, and a general lack of transparency as justification for their fiscal reluctance, and argue that wiser fiscal decisions might be the best solution. As Speaker Paulson told the Iowa Press, House Republicans are taking their responsibility to not "just blindly write a check" very seriously. Paulson added, "these dollars need to be explained."
Despite these strict statements, University of Iowa's President Sally Mason remains optimistic that her university's budget will remain safe, confidently hoping that the universities and Senate Democrats "can get the House to turn around." However, with few proposals for the provision of higher education funds beyond a tuition hike (that will arguably decrease higher education access in Iowa), and a state budget gap of $200-300 million to close before the session adjourns, this might be wishful thinking. Important as education may be to both Democrats and Republicans, time and money are both running out in Iowa.