Education budget passes, ensuring tuition freeze at state universities

Iowa lawmakers are finally getting the hang of divided control–or maybe they just want to get out of town early in an election year. During the 2011 legislative session, Iowa House Republicans and Senate Democrats were still arguing about state budget targets well into June and didn’t approve final spending bills until the very last day of the fiscal year.

In contrast, legislative leaders agreed on fiscal year 2015 spending targets seven weeks ago. On April 23, both the Iowa House and Senate approved the conference committee report for the education appropriations bill. Details on the education budget debate, final funding levels and roll calls are after the jump.

Amazingly, the legislature may be ready to adjourn for the year by the end of next week.

Click here for the full text of Senate File 2347 and here for the conference committee report. The final price tag of $986.1 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1 was very close to the original Iowa Senate version, approved earlier this month. Responding to a promise by the Board of Regents to freeze in-state tuition in exchange for a funding increase of 4 percent for the state universities, the Iowa Senate bill increased regent university funding by $24 million to a total of $584 million. Other big-ticket items in the budget included $201 million for community colleges ($8 million more than the previous year) and more funding for private college student aid. State Senator Rick Bertrand was the only Republican who joined the 26 Senate Democrats to approve that bill.

The Iowa House debate on the bill was a contentious affair, with many Democratic amendments ruled not germane. House Democrats wanted more funding for various priorities. On a party-line vote of 53 to 45, the Iowa House approved its version of Senate File 2347 on April 15.

The next day, Iowa Senate Education Budget Subcommittee Chair Brian Schoenjahn appealed to Governor Terry Branstad to help convince House Republicans to “do the right thing.” Ensuring a second straight year of no tuition increase was among Branstad’s legislative priorities for this session.

I don’t know whether the governor intervened directly, but the House and Senate conference committee didn’t take long to reach agreement on education funding. The final bill appropriates $986.1 million in fiscal year 2015, including $230.9 million for the University of Iowa, $180.9 million in funding for Iowa State University, and $89.2 million for the University of Northern Iowa. That’s a 4 percent increase for Iowa and Iowa State, plus an additional $2.6 million for UNI, which has a larger proportion of in-state students (so is affected more severely by freezing tuition for Iowa residents).

Other important features of the bill:

The also adds $50.5 million for the centerpiece program in the K-12 education overhaul approved by lawmakers last year – a new teacher leadership structure that will reward educators who take on mentoring and leadership roles in their schools.

General aid to community colleges was increased by $8 million – or 4.1 percent – to a total of $201.3 million.

The Iowa Senate approved the conference committee report by 28 votes to 21 on April 23. Republicans Rick Bertrand and Nancy Boettger joined all 26 Democrats to vote yes. All the remaining Republicans voted no, except for Mark Segebart, who was absent.

The Iowa House vote on the conference committee report was unusual in that a “non-record roll call was requested,” in which the report passed by 68 votes to 17. There’s no way to tell which representatives cast the no votes, but I assume all were Democrats. Shortly after the conference report was accepted, House members approved a final vote on passing Senate File 2347 by 90 votes to 8. The eight Democrats who voted against the bill were Chuck Isenhart, Ruth Ann Gaines, Bruce Hunter, Marti Anderson, Mary Gaskill, Roger Thomas, Bob Kressig, and Pat Murphy. (Kressig represents the Cedar Falls district including the UNI campus.) Democrat Anesa Katazovic and Republican Clel Baudler were absent. All other state representatives voted for the education appropriations bill.

Unfortunately, House Republicans continue to refuse to set allowable growth for K-12 budgets a year in advance, as required by state law. But overall, Senate File 2347 sets reasonably strong education funding levels. I’ll be surprised if Branstad vetoes any significant portion of it.

In other higher education news, the Iowa Board of Regents met on April 24. Besides approving Bruce Rastetter for another term as board president, the board is moving forward with several steps to reduce student debt:

Beginning in July, two full-time financial literacy specialists will join the University of Iowa’s Office of Student Financial Aid. Their job will be to help students identify ways to finance their education with the least amount of debt. Although the specialists will be available to all students, their focus will be on undergraduate borrowing.

The full-time financial specialists will replace two part-time graduate assistants, who for two years have assisted first-year students with managing their debt.

Iowa State University will open a new center on campus this fall where financial specialists will be available Monday through Friday to help students manage their debt, said Thomas Hill, ISU’s senior vice president for student affairs.

The Annual Student Financial Aid Report was shared Thursday with the Board of Regents as part of its monthly meeting, which was held at the Iowa School for the Deaf in Council Bluffs.

According to documents from the regents, the average debt load for a University of Iowa student graduating in 2012-13 was $27,304, up $1,008 from the year before. The figure at Iowa State University was $29,458, and at the University of Northern Iowa it was $23,151. The average debt load nationally for a student graduating from a public four-year institution was $25,500 in 2011-12.

UPDATE: Radio Iowa reported on disagreement during the Iowa House floor debate.

The University of Northern Iowa’s allotment was short by a little less than $2 million, but the tuition freeze will happen anyway. That angers Representative Bob Kressig, a Democrat from Cedar Falls.

“We’re talking about $1.775 million for a Regents school that has 92 percent of their students are Iowa kids and we’re going to short change them. That’s what we’re doing here today,” Kressig said late last night. “I think this is disappointing.”

Representative Cecil Dolecheck, a Republican from Mount Ayr, told Kressig there isn’t any extra in the budget to give UNI.

“We do not have enough room in our target, when we fund all the other priorities that are there, so we had to work within that framework,” Dolecheck said.

Representative Cindy Winckler, a Democrat from Davenport, said that target leaves an unspent ending balance of $881 million.

“Limiting resources to education is not necessary,” Winckler said.

Login or Join to comment and post.