Weekend open thread: Good tsar, bad advisers edition

What’s on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers? This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

A bunch of Iowa primary election previews are in the works to post between now and Tuesday. Still trying to decide on my last few guesses for the latest Bleeding Heartland election prediction contest.

Meanwhile, the Iowa Board of Regents will meet this week to discuss, among other things, how to handle the upcoming search for a University of Northern Iowa president and whether to approve a staff recommendation on raising tuition for the coming academic year.

The Regents had requested $20 million in additional state funding for fiscal year 2017: $4.5 million for the University of Iowa, $8.2 million for Iowa State University, and $7.65 million for UNI. Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter indicated that to avoid a tuition increase, the universities would need a minimum of $8 million in additional funding–the same level Governor Terry Branstad had requested in his draft budget.

But the legislature approved and Branstad signed into law only an extra $6.3 million in general fund support: $1.3 million for UI, $2.2 million for ISU, and $2.8 million for UNI. The first details about a proposed tuition hike came out a few days ago:

This year’s lower-than-requested state funding has led to the universities requesting tuition levels for the 2016-17 academic year that would raise base tuition for resident undergraduates to $7,178 at UI and $7,148 at ISU and UNI. When compared to tuition levels at the beginning of the Fall 2015 semester, the new totals represent a 7.5 percent increase over a 12-month period at all three institutions. […]

The proposed resident tuition increases are estimated to generate about $14.3 million, with the total from all proposed increases generating about $19.9 million, according to data from the regents.

On Friday, Branstad said the proposed tuition hike was “too much.” I’ve enclosed the relevant comments from Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press” program below. The same day, Iowa House Appropriations Committee Chair Pat Grassley also suggested raising tuition by $19.9 million was excessive, given that lawmakers allocated only $1.6 million less for the state universities than the governor had requested.

The stage appears to be set for Regents President Rastetter to ride in on his white horse, rejecting the staff recommendation and acknowledging Branstad’s concern about the burden on hardworking Iowa families.

“Good tsar, bad advisers” is an old Russian saying that conveys a mythical image of a leader with good intentions, “often betrayed by underlings.” Objectively, it’s unfair to raise students’ tuition by 7.5 percent when state funding increased by far less than that percentage. But if Branstad were truly concerned about supporting students at Iowa’s regent schools, he would stop advocating for business tax breaks costing tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars and start insisting on adequate state funding for higher education.

Even the scaled-back version of a new sales tax break for Iowa manufacturers will cost an estimated $21 million in fiscal year 2017, rising to $25 million annually by 2021. Allocating an extra $20 million to the state universities this year would have eliminated the need for any tuition increase.

Excerpts from the June 3 edition of Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press” program:

Borg: I’m going to get into tuition just briefly here. What is your long-term strategy? There’s a tuition increase the Regents are going to be considering right now because the state appropriation didn’t come up to their expectations and desires. What is your long-term strategy? Where would you like to see the balance between what parents and students have to kick in as to what the state appropriates?

Branstad: Well, that’s a great question. First of all, I’m very sensitive to the cost of higher education. I went to the University of Iowa right out of high school. My parents didn’t have the money to send me there. I worked construction work in the summer, I worked in the cafeteria during the school year and I had to borrow money. And I didn’t get my last student loan paid back until after I was elected Governor the first time. So I’m very sensitive to the tuition costs for parents and students. And I want to keep — and I’m proud to say that we’ve had two years where we had a total freeze and now I would like to see the tuition increase to be pretty modest. And so I’m concerned about too big an increase, especially with the financial hardships that families are facing. I understand the Regents have to balance the needs of the universities with the impact that it’s going to have on the students and their families, but I for one would like to see those tuition increases kept modest so we can keep our university tuition affordable for Iowa students.

Borg: Just a quick follow-up to that, more modest than is being considered right now, taking on an extra $300 onto what has already been approved for the fall?

Branstad: I think that’s —

Borg: Too much?

Branstad: I think it’s too much. I hope the Regents will take a close look at that. That is a board recommendation. It has not been approved by the Regents. But I think they need to look at the impact it’s going to have on Iowa students and their families, especially this late, because the fall school year is not that far away. So I think we have to be careful about it.

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