Cuts roll along in Iowa legislature

BY SHAWN GUDE | APRIL 01, 2009 7:40 AM

The UI and the state Board of Regents would both see state funding cuts of about 12 percent under a preliminary education budget passed out of the Iowa Legislature’s joint education appropriations subcommittee on Tuesday.

Approximately $350 million in federal stimulus money will later be plugged into areas that would take the most draconian cuts, said Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville. With that influx of cash, he predicted the regents’ funding slash would total around 5 or 6 percent — a couple points fewer than the cuts many education areas will see.

Still, such lawmakers as Sen. Brian Schoenjahn, D-Arlington, regretted the severity of the cuts needed to balance the budget.

“I hate the bill,” said Schoenjahn, the chairman of the education appropriations subcommittee. “If there were a way I didn’t have to vote for that thing, I wouldn’t.”

Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City, was hopeful stimulus money could adequately plug the regents’ relatively austere budget and preclude tuition increases.

“The last thing we want to do is raise tuition for kids,” said Steckman, the vice chairwoman of the subcommittee. “That’s not what we want to do at all.”

Ultimately, the regents — who must complete their final budget in June — are responsible for that decision.

Dvorsky said students could potentially see increased class sizes, have a harder time adding preferred classes, and run into longer lines because of lay-offs.

Under the subcommittee’s bill, most portions of the education budget would receive roughly 8 percent cuts.

All three public universities would take a 12.55 percent hit, and the composite regent budget would shrink by just under 12 percent.

Although the preliminary education budget is still a “moving target,” as Dvorsky put it, it provides a clearer look at the shape of the eventual education budget.

“We can deal with minor adjustments to language [in the bill],” Schoenjahn said, and the substance of the bill will be largely untouched.

The budget must move through two appropriations committees, and both chambers must approve it.

In addition, Gov. Chet Culver must submit his own budget recommendations by Friday, two weeks after the Iowa Revenue Estimating Conference projected the state will take in $270 million less next year than previously thought.

When the budget is complete, legislators said they will work with Culver to allocate federal stimulus cash to avert layoffs, increase Pell Grants, and fund work-study programs.

Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville, stressed the need to avoid myopic funding decisions over the next few weeks that could hurt the state when the stimulus money runs out.

The process includes politics as well.

Some Republicans assert Democratic lawmakers have over-spent during the last couple sessions, adding to the severity of Iowa’s current budget crunch. For their part, Democrats contend the situation is largely a revenue — rather than expenditure — problem.

“This was a tough year,” Steckman said simply.

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