Deafening silence from Kim Reynolds as GOP prepares to gut higher education

Governor Kim Reynolds found time to show off her support for education during the past two days. She honored five schools that closed "achievement gaps," touted "extremely important" community colleges, and praised dual enrollment on January 25. She attended a luncheon to honor "Outstanding Iowa Teachers" the following day.

Somehow, the unfailingly "optimistic" governor never got around to denouncing the huge higher education cuts Iowa Senate Republicans rolled out toward the end of the week.

For the second legislative session in a row, state lawmakers must reduce spending already allocated for the current fiscal year because revenues have fallen short of projections. On January 25, Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a plan for $52 million in mid-year spending cuts within hours of the draft bill's publication.

Earlier in the month, Reynolds had proposed $27 million in mid-year cuts, including $5,133,070 from the Board of Regents, which oversees the state universities. Senate File 2117 would reduce the state universities' budgets by more than $19 million: $8,670,363 from the University of Iowa, $6,914,994 from Iowa State University, and $3,748,494 from the University of Northern Iowa.

The governor's plan would take $1,813,797 from community colleges during the current fiscal year; the Senate GOP plan would take $5,441,391, three times as much.

The higher education institutions would have to absorb those funding losses before June 30, and they have limited options for cost-cutting, since second-semester classes have already begun.

Board of Regents Executive Director Mark Braun had taken the governor's proposed cuts in stride, saying in a January 9 written statement, "Any reduction is challenging, but the Board recognizes the current fiscal situation the state is facing. We will work with our institutions to make any required FY18 reductions in ways that have as little impact on students as possible." Braun's comment on the Senate Republican plan was less tactful (emphasis added):

While the Board understands the state’s current fiscal situation, we are hopeful that the General Assembly and Governor will continue to work with the Board and public universities to significantly lessen these proposed reductions.

As the second semester is already underway, these severe cuts for FY2018 would cause disruptions on our campuses. We will work to minimize the impact on students.

The Board continues to support and will advocate for its appropriation request for FY2019, which includes $12 million in resident undergraduate financial aid. The state of Iowa ranks last in the nation in need-based financial aid to public university students.

As the state of Iowa is focusing on high-demand jobs, degree attainment, and the biosciences economy, cutting the public universities to this degree goes in the opposite direction of achieving these goals. The public universities are key drivers in all three of these areas and are critical to the future economic success of our state.

The governor talked a good game about STEM, the "jobs of tomorrow," and educational opportunities during her Condition of the State speech in early January. But this week, she didn't threaten to veto the Senate GOP bill or even sound alarmed about the planned cuts. William Petroski and Brianne Pfannenstiel reported for the Des Moines Register on January 25,

Reynolds didn't offer any judgment when asked by reporters Thursday about the Senate's budget reduction plan, suggesting it was simply "part of the process" of addressing state spending. She said she had tried to minimize the impacts of budget cuts higher education in her budget plan, but she offered to work House and Senate leaders to reach a consensus.

Later the same day, Reynolds and acting Lieutenant Governor Adam Gregg stopped in Newton as part of their "Unleashing Opportunity" tour, a series of campaign-style events on the taxpayer's dime. David Dolmage reported for the Newton Daily News,

Serving as Iowa’s lieutenant governor, Reynolds was 57 years old when she earned her bachelor’s degree. Reynolds said she wants to create a new grant program for people like herself, who started a four-year degree program but never finished.

I foresee a lot of demand for that kind of grant. Budget cuts on the scale Republican lawmakers envision will likely lead to sharp tuition hikes at Iowa's state universities, which in turn will prompt many students to abandon four-year degrees.

Back to the governor's upbeat spin in Newton:

On Thursday, she championed Iowa’s network of community colleges and talked about the challenges of going back to school as an adult. Community colleges are important, Reynolds said, noting several partnerships between local businesses and community colleges to fill positions in Iowa’s skilled trades industry.

“Our community colleges are extremely important,” Reynolds said. “I’m really excited about showing our kids there are many pathways to a great future.”

In the oft-quoted words of Joe Biden, “Don't tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I'll tell you what you value.” Reynolds can demonstrate that community colleges are "extremely important" to her by putting Republican lawmakers on notice that she will veto any bill that cuts higher education spending too deeply. Being "excited" is no substitute for making sure universities and community colleges can provide quality instruction at an affordable price.

UPDATE: Three days later, Reynolds still has not condemned the GOP plan to cut higher education. Rather, she tried to change the subject by signing an executive order on January 29 to create "the Iowa Clearinghouse for Work-Based Learning, an attempt to connect Iowa schools and students with real-world business opportunities, experience and networking." The governor has asked lawmakers to allocate $250,000 toward this project, which probably could support only two or three staffers for the entire state.

To my knowledge, the only elected Republican to speak out against GOP budget plans was State Representative Brian Best. Douglas Burns reported for the Carroll Daily Times Herald on a January 27 legislative forum in Carroll.

State Rep. Brian Best, R-Glidden, broke with his party on the $52 million budget cuts, saying they were too severe and anti-rural.

“The further you are from Des Moines, the more you are going to be affected by any cuts,” Best said.

Iowa’s community colleges are staring at about $5.4 million in cuts under the GOP Senate plan, which Best says would hurt job creation in rural Iowa.

“You’ve got to think about your district before your party, and I’m going to tell Des Moines that,” Best said.

  • Thanks for the reporting

    Thanks for the update on education. I appreciate your reporting.

    Even if I weren't a public school teacher, as a community member I'd be concerned that we have strong public schools and higher ed system. Despite the rhetoric, Gov. Reynolds and the House and Senate GOP have been quite willing to cut higher ed and limit public ed funding during a time of long-term economic recovery. I worry about what will happen when the economy takes a nose-dive again.

  • a mind is a terrible thing to waste

    As stated, only one elected R has voiced opposition. His concern seems more about geography than politics. I guess he can thank a teacher for knowing the difference???

    PS: You'd think our apple-cheeked gov would have more empathy for students in higher ed., after all the ink on her diploma is barely dry.

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