Iowa legislators not ready to decide on money for tuition freeze

BY IowaWatch, The Daily Iowan, and the Iowa State Daily | DECEMBER 03, 2012 6:30 AM

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Iowa legislators are nowhere near ready to accept the state universities’ suggestion that, in exchange for freezing tuition for in-state undergraduates, government take over part of their programs that help needy Iowans pay tuition.

Some favor the idea, while a small handful are dead-set against it. But for the most part, legislators are willing, and expecting, to hear more.

They want to see something formal from the state Board of Regents and Gov. Terry Branstad’s proposed fiscal 2014 budget before judging the idea, a survey by IowaWatch, the Iowa State Daily, and The Daily Iowan reveals.

“What we have now is just some words, just a proposal,” Rep. Greg Forristall, R-Macedonia, said.
The regents are set to vote Wednesday on a proposal to freeze next year’s tuition for undergraduate Iowans at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and the University of Northern Iowa. The freeze is tied to a decision in October to phase out a program that sets aside 15 percent of tuition revenue to assist low-income undergraduates from Iowa with their tuition.

The regents have told foundations raising funds for the universities to come up with $200 million to cover some of the costs of that low-income financial aid, and they also want the state to give the universities $39.5 million next year for aid.

Left unanswered in that arrangement is this: will the Legislature go along with it?

Reporters from IowaWatch, the Iowa State Daily, and The Daily Iowan spent the past three weeks asking members of the 2013 Legislature that question. Even with a small sample — 22 heading to the Senate and 42 to the House — the prevailing opinion was that legislators want more information.

But they are open to the idea, some more than others.

“I actually want to expand the scholarship programs,” Sen. Jack Hatch, D-Des Moines, said. “So I am in favor of more scholarships and even more financial aid for students staying at the universities.”

The idea is huge and complex, and it will require a lot of analysis, many of the legislators said.

Sen. Jerry Behn, R-Boone, said he is not a fan of tuition set-asides — students’ tuition being used to help others with tuition assistance. But replacing the current program merely changes the pockets from which assistance comes to those of taxpayers, he said.

“One way or the other, you’re going to pay for it,” Behn said.

Base undergraduate tuition for Iowa residents is $6,678 at the UI and $6,648 at ISU and UNI.

The regents also have asked the state for an additional $40.1 million in the next fiscal year to make up for $150 million in funding cuts since the 2008-09 budget year, and they have tied the tuition freeze suggestion to that as well.

Sen. Brian Schoenjahn, D-Arlington, the chairman of the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said he sees that as a separate issue.

“The focus for now is on the transition so we can give a quality educational opportunity to as many students as possible,” he said.

Schoenjahn favors the state picking up transitional costs of providing tuition aid to in-state undergraduates at the state universities, and he is charged with steering the proposal through the Democratic-controlled Senate.

“I think it’s doable. If educating kids is one of our priorities, then fund them,” he said. “Our next debt crisis is not going to be banking. It’s going to be families dealing with tuition.”

Sen. Robert Dvorsky, D-Coralville, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said nothing will change his opinion that the state needs to take on the funding.

“It is past due the time that the state of Iowa does this,” he said in the survey. “We currently provide private colleges around $47 million for merit-based student aid.”

Tim Albrecht, the communications director for Branstad, said the governor wants college to be affordable, but his proposed budget will not be released until January, when he delivers his Condition of the State message.

“It’s on the radar, and certainly it’s going to be part of the larger discussion,” Albrecht said about the regents’ tuition assistance proposal.

The reality of tight funding that led to budget cuts in previous years doesn’t exist going into this session.  The state ended fiscal 2012 on June 30 with a $688.1 million surplus, which state leaders expect will grow.

The state’s tax-revenue projection in October showed a 10.4 percent increase in expected tax revenue from last fiscal year to this fiscal year. Net tax revenue for the previous 12 months through October was up 8.1 percent from the previous year, the best since June 2007, the state’s Legislative Services Agency reported.

A few Republicans, though, are ready to dump the tuition-assistance idea.

“I don’t think it’s going to go through,” said Sen. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa, one of two legislators surveyed to state their flat-out opposition.

The other was Rep.-elect John Landon, R-Ankeny.

Chelgren said he is skeptical about giving the extra money to the universities.

“We’re already struggling on where we’re going to put our dollars, and we have huge issues with mental health, and we have huge issues with K through 12 education,” he said. “I don’t see them pulling 40 million out of the general fund to create another entitlement.”

Legislators will want information in the next session: for example, where tuition assistance is going now. The regents’ plan calls for phasing out the program that takes part of the tuition students pay at the universities to be set aside for financial aid given to other students.

Meanwhile, new legislators are busy enough catching up on all of the issues they will face in Des Moines.

“That’s a tough question to answer for a new elected employee, because I want to make sure our budget is able to do that. I know the budget is going to be a huge factor,” said Rep.-elect Frank Wood, D-Eldridge. “I am under the impression that we do have a pretty healthy balance. I have always been pro-education.”

Senate Majority Leader Michael Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said that the Legislature will have 38 new members next year after a vacancy is filled, plus individual legislators’ particular feelings — good and bad — about the regents and state universities, make it too early for predicting what will come out of the Legislature.

“I do think it’s likely the Legislature will do something about it,” Gronstal said. “We’re very open to dealing with this issue.”

The formal proposal that would come out of Wednesday’s meeting still needs to be sent to the governor and then legislators. Gronstal stopped short of saying how much money the state may have for tuition assistance at the state universities. What’s important, he said, is that Iowa have strong state universities with a diverse student body.

Some give-and-take can be expected to get to that point. Gronstal’s House counterpart, the Republicans’ Kraig Paulsen, said the universities could be wiser and more transparent with how they deal with tuition and spending.

“We, obviously, have to go through the math,” Paulsen said. However, “I think there’s an opportunity to plug in.”

The following student journalists worked on this project:

From The Daily Iowan: Lauren Coffey, Brianna Jett, Cassidy Riley, Brent Griffiths, Nick Hassett, Tierra Simpson, Eric Clark, Quentin Misiag, Stacey Murray, Rishabh Jain, Kristen East, Jordyn Reiland.

From the ISU Daily: Katherine Klingseis, Katelynn McCollough, Frances Myers

From IowaWatch: Hayley Bruce, (UI) Emily Hoerner (UI), Linh Ta (UNI)

Database: Follow responses by next year’s state legislators as we receive them. Our goal is to get comments from all 149 who were elected in November. One seat is vacant.

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