Weekend open thread: "The resources we have" edition

What’s on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers? This is an open thread: all topics welcome. The Des Moines Register ran an extraordinary lead editorial on Saturday about a Des Moines police officer’s “pattern of misconduct” and “poor judgment.” Click through to read the most strongly-worded warning about a law enforcement official I’ve seen in an Iowa newspaper.

An emerging compromise on higher education funding was one of the biggest state-level news stories of the week. The Iowa legislature’s joint Education Appropriations Subcommittee, co-chaired by Democratic State Senator Brian Schoenjahn and Republican State Representative Cecil Dolecheck, agreed on April 13 that the fiscal year 2017 budget for higher education will include an additional $6.3 million for public universities: $2.8 million for the University of Northern Iowa, $2.2 million for Iowa State University, and $1.3 million for the University of Iowa. Iowa Public Radio’s Joyce Russell noted that the increases work out to a little less than 3 percent more state funding for UNI, 1.2 percent for ISU, and less than 1 percent for UI.

The Iowa Board of Regents had requested an extra $20 million in state funding for the coming fiscal year: $4.5 million for UI, $8.2 million for ISU, and $7.65 million for UNI. Governor Terry Branstad’s draft budget had included a combined $8 million in additional state funding for the public universities. Last month, Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter said at least $8 million would be needed to avoid raising tuition. In a statement released April 14, Rastetter said the board would “immediately start discussions regarding tuition increases at our universities for Fall 2016.”

More background and details on the higher education funding compromise are after the jump, but I want to highlight a couple of misconceptions. Russell quoted Dolecheck as saying “we did the best we can with the resources that we have,” and quoted Schoenjahn as saying lawmakers tried to stretch “the precious resources we had” but couldn’t do more without raising taxes.

No. Just last month, the Iowa House and Senate approved a tax bill that will reduce fiscal year 2017 revenues by nearly $120 million: $97.6 million by harmonizing Iowa tax code with federal statutes, and around $21 million by reducing state sales taxes for manufacturing companies. Another $280 million was taken off the table long before this year’s budget negotiations began, when most lawmakers in both chambers approved an expensive commercial property tax cut in 2013. Leaders of both parties bragged about that tax cut at the time but did not acknowledge how the windfall for commercial property owners would affect the state’s ability to pay for other priorities down the road.

Speaking on behalf of the union that represents UNI faculty, Professor Joe Gorton said this week, “It seems clear to me that the regent universities are being sacrificed on the altar of corporate welfare.” An Iowa Fiscal Partnership analysis from January shows Gorton was closer to the truth than were Schoenjahn or Dolecheck. Business tax credits are expected to cost the state around $272 million during fiscal year 2017.

Writing at Blog for Iowa this weekend, Dave Bradley argued, “Had Branstad’s administration not given tax cuts to businesses without consulting the legislature we would probably [be] OK. […] while the special interests that the Republicans have given breaks to are no longer paying what they once did, Iowa’s parents will see higher tuition fees on their kids university bills.” Fact-check: mostly false. Over many years, the legislature approved and failed to revise Iowa’s generous business tax breaks. Most Democrats in both chamber joined their GOP colleagues to pass the costly property tax cut three years ago. Just six state senators and thirteen representatives voted no; I’ve listed them after the jump. The Branstad administration did try to enact the manufacturing sales tax break without legislative approval last year, and was on track to succeed. However, the tax bill lawmakers negotiated and approved last month included a scaled-back sales tax break, superseding the Department of Revenue’s proposed administrative rule.

Speaking of money for state universities not living up to expectations, Ryan Foley of the Associated Press revealed on April 15 that Rastetter has paid only $1.5 million toward his 2008 pledge of $5 million to the University of Iowa’s football program. Before 2015, Rastetter had donated just $500,000 toward that pledge, raising “questions about whether the delay was part of the pressure he put on former university President Sally Mason.” Excerpts from Foley’s article are at the end of this post.

The six Iowa Senate Democrats who voted against Senate File 295, the 2013 bill that substantially cut commercial property taxes and slightly increased the earned income tax credit:

Joe Bolkcom
Dick Dearden
Bob Dvorsky
Rob Hogg
Janet Petersen
Herman Quirmbach

The thirteen Iowa House Democrats who voted against Senate File 295 in May 2013:

Marti Anderson
Bruce Hunter
Chuck Isenhart
Dave Jacoby
Jerry Kearns
Vicki Lensing
Mary Mascher
Pat Murphy
Jo Oldson
Sharon Steckman
Todd Taylor
Beth Wessel-Kroeschell
Cindy Winckler

Jeff Charis-Carlson reported for the Des Moines Register and the Iowa City Press-Citizen on a February meeting of the Education Appropriations Subcommittee, at which the three university presidents asked for more state funding.

Each of the presidents explained what his institution would do with the additional money. UNI plans to use its requested $7.65 million increase to improve enrollment management, increase financial aid and to invest in efficiency projects identified by the regents’ transparent, inclusive efficiency review study.

ISU, which has seen 40 percent growth over the past decade, said its requested $8.2 million would be used to improve the university’s student-faculty ratio and to beef up the university’s online offerings to serve more students.

UI would use its requested $4.5 million as part of a faculty vitality initiative that would offer increased salaries and other incentives to recruit new faculty and to ensure that current faculty members stay with UI.

Side note: The idea of seeking $4.5 million to bump up faculty compensation at the University of Iowa emerged in an unusual Labor Day statement by Board of Regents President Rastetter–a transparent attempt to quell outrage over the hiring of Bruce Harreld as university president a few days earlier.

Joyce Russell reported for Iowa Public Radio on April 14,

Sen. Brian Schoenjahn (D-Arlington), co-chair of the budget panel, said without raising taxes they had less than five million dollars of new money to stretch across a billion dollar budget.

“That’s what we did with the precious resources we had,” Schoenjahn said. “I know across the board it’s not enough.”

“I don’t think anybody got what they needed or think they needed, but we did the best we can with the resources that we have,” added Rep. Cecil Dolocheck (R-Mount Ayr).

Iowa Board of Regents press release, April 14:

    Statement from Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter on Higher Education Funding for FY17

The Board understands that this was a particularly challenging year, with limited funds available. However, we are very disappointed the proposed funding to the public universities was well below the Board’s request.

The Board’s goal was to be able to freeze tuition if we received state appropriations as requested. Since that has not happened, the Board will immediately start discussions regarding tuition increases at our universities for Fall 2016.

Making sure Iowa students and families can afford to attend Iowa’s public universities needs to be more of a priority for the legislature. Investing now protects Iowa’s future.

From the April 15 report by Ryan Foley of the Associated Press, “Delay in regent’s $5M gift to Iowa football raises questions.”

[Y]ears after his 2008 commitment was touted at a news conference as the largest gift to Iowa athletics, Bruce Rastetter has given less than a third of that amount, a review by The Associated Press shows. Another donor who promised $5 million the same day completed his pledge two years ago, and the football training complex they were supporting has been open for about 18 months. […]

His handling of the donation contradicts public statements claiming he’s given $5 million, which he’s used to tamp down criticism that his policies have hurt the university. And it raises questions about whether the delay was part of the pressure he put on former university President Sally Mason. […]

Rastetter gave his first payment of $500,000 in 2012 but then nothing for three years during the rest of Mason’s presidency. Rastetter and other regents had at times been critical of Mason and pushed for a leadership change.

Once Mason announced plans to step down last year, Rastetter again opened his pocketbook for the project. He has given $1 million in five gifts over the last year, bringing his donations to $1.5 million, according to the UI Foundation.

Despite the recent barrage of payments, Rastetter’s donations have fallen short of repeated published accounts claiming he has given the full $5 million.

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