GOP to look at regents' budget


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Republican lawmakers in Iowa — with the legislative and executive power they picked up in this month's elections — are looking to slash the state's budget, and higher-education funds could be a target.

Republican lawmakers vow to improve efficiency at Iowa's public institutions, lowering the costs for taxpayers and for students.

Legislators say tuition has grown too fast. At the discretion of the state Board of Regents, tuition has increased much faster than state appropriations for decades. Today, less than half of university budgets in Iowa come from state appropriations.

"I think we're going to look very carefully at tying the regents' hands to not increasing tuition more than the Higher Education Price Index," said Rep. Jeff Kaufmann, R-Wilton.

The Higher Education Price Index is an inflation measure the regents use to guide tuition decisions.

Requiring the regents to adhere to the index would mean they could only raise tuition as much as a generic basket of higher-education expenses increase each year. That would likely mean tuition increases between 3 and 5 percent annually — less than the 6 percent the regents dealt this academic year.

"That 6 percent filled only one-fifth of the gap in state appropriations," Regent President David Miles said. "We got more efficient."

Iowa's universities took a hit last year when Gov. Chet Culver issued a 10 percent across-the-board cut to state departments. The regents requested $639 million from the state for fiscal 2012 — about the same amount the state appropriated in 1997.

Miles said that sum is "the minimum necessary to protect the quality at our institutions." But neither Miles nor Republican leaders would predict whether the request will be met.

"It's premature to say whether we will go in and cut or reform the Board of Regents' budget," said state Sen. Paul McKinley, R-Chariton, the party's leader in the Senate. "But I think it's fair to say the public is pretty adamant in wanting to cut back on the size and growth of government."

In the 2009 and 2010 legislative sessions — when Democrats controlled the Statehouse — Republicans unsuccessfully proposed a handful of budget cuts to Iowa's public universities.

And now that the Republicans control the House and the governorship, party leaders say Iowa's universities need to be more efficient.

"While we spend more and more and more money, we're getting less student achievement," said McKinley, who serves on the Senate Education Committee.

He points to the University of Iowa's new Campus Recreation & Wellness Center as one example of frivolous spending. The $70 million facility is adjacent to the Iowa River's floodplain.

"That's an example of why it costs more to go to college," he said. "Those tuition costs have risen at a much higher rate than inflation. Everybody has to do his part and ask, 'What are the costs?' "

Most states saw a decrease in state higher-education support over the last two years, according to data compiled at Illinois State University. Iowa's 4.7 percent decrease over two years is near the middle among states with decreasing support.

"Historically, we have seen ups and downs in higher-education funding depending on the state of the economy," said Jim Palmer, an Illinois State professor who studies data on state support for higher education around the U.S. "Eventually, as the economy picks up, funding for higher education picks up as well."

But if state revenues rebound in Iowa, Republicans said, they aren't promising they'll boost university funding back to pre-recession levels.

"Revenues will turn around, but I truly believe there needs to be scrutiny on how those dollars are spent," Kaufmann said. "The Board of Regents has not shown that it is a body that takes that scrutinization seriously."

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