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Iowa GOP lawmakers wrong to consider slashing regents' budget

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | NOVEMBER 18, 2010 7:20 AM

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Iowa Republican lawmakers must be afflicted with either amnesia or post-election hubris. Those appear to be the only two explanations for their refusal to commit to meeting the state Board of Regents' budget request.

Rep. Jeff Kaufmann, R-Wilton, laid out his position in Wednesday's Daily Iowan: "Revenues will turn around, but I truly believe there needs to be scrutiny on how those dollars are spent. The Board of Regents has not shown that it is a body that takes that scrutinization seriously."

As Iowa begins to climb out of the economic doldrums and state government recovers from recession-induced cuts, it's not the time to talk about further gutting the state's higher-education budget. Iowa lawmakers have turned their backs on the state's public universities, especially over the past decade. Republicans need to begin filling in those funding holes — not continue to privatize the state's public higher-education system. And they shouldn't attribute their Election Day success to voter affinity for higher-education cuts.

We don't wish to exonerate Democrats. The hollowing-out of state higher-education funding has been done on a bipartisan basis. But the election has brought Republicans back to power in the House and governorship. They would be wise to recognize this pernicious trend for what it is and push for previous appropriation levels. If the cuts don't stop soon, the "public" in public university will become a misnomer.

We're not sure if Republican leaders desire an emaciated higher-education system. But for the sake of future students, it would be wise to reverse the current funding course.

At this point, platitudes about "efficiency" and "doing more with less" are laughable. The regents' fiscal 2012 appropriations request is similar to the amount the state allocated in 1997. Private dollars now compose the majority of the UI's general fund. Over the past three decades, economic downturns have prompted funding cuts — and no post-recession restoration of funding levels. State universities have been forced to "do more with less" for years now.

In addition, we hope the GOP doesn't perceive its electoral drubbing of Democrats to be an unalloyed mandate from voters, especially on higher-education issues.

The economy, both on the state and national level, remains in bad shape. Chet Culver is an unpopular governor. And the judicial-retention election turned into a referendum on the state Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage. These factors created a noxious atmosphere for incumbent Democrats. We remain unconvinced Iowa citizens are clamoring for deeper cuts to the state's higher-education system.

If the comments of Sen. Paul McKinley, R-Chariton, are any indication, however, Republicans may succumb to this common post-election temptation. He told the DI that "I think it's fair to say the public is pretty adamant in wanting to cut back on the size and growth of government."

The Editorial Board doesn't wish to pre-emptively write off Republican lawmakers. Most Democrats have been poor advocates for higher education. Funding for higher education declined much less rapidly in Gov.-elect Terry Branstad's previous four-term tenure. And while we're skeptical about his methods, dyspepsia over tuition increases is encouraging.

Republicans are in dangerous territory on the higher-education funding issue, however. They would be right to pivot to a more pro-regents position before the Legislature reconvenes in January.

Higher education has taken a hard enough hit in the past few decades. For the sake of the state's public education system, Republicans should reconsider their callous stance.


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