Mason at Statehouse calls for legislature's funding support


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University of Iowa President Sally Mason went before the Iowa Legislature’s education appropriation subcommittee on Tuesday with a focus on the university budget for fiscal year 2014. At least one senator said the schools should’ve asked for more money.

“In the last few years, I haven’t necessarily been able to come in front of any group with a lot good news, but this year that has changed, and we are very pleased about that,” Mason said. “Gov. Branstad’s budget proposal for the next fiscal year includes the necessary funding to enable the regents’ universities to freeze the tuition rates for in-state undergraduate students.”

The state Board of Regents first proposed the tuition freeze at a September 2012 meeting. Following its approval in December, the regents look to the Legislature to pass the necessary 2.6 percent increase in funding to cover inflation rates, allowing the regent universities to freeze undergraduate resident tuition.

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, expressed discontent, saying the regents should have asked for a larger increase in funding.

“Frankly, I’m a little disappointed they didn’t ask for more,” he said. “We cut the regents 24 percent a few years ago, and I feel strongly we need to build back that support and do so more aggressively than a 2.6 percent increase.”

Many senators expressed support for the regent universities, citing the schools’ specificity as a reason for their financial backing.

“They gave us specific targets for the money to be used for, and I think that draws our support because we know where the money is going and we know what the use is,” said Rep. Joshua Byrnes, R-Osage.  “When you take that approach, you do get the support you need.”

Also included in Mason’s discussions Tuesday was the proposed allocation of roughly $865,000 for the State Hygienic Laboratory.

The laboratory works on public-health issues in Iowa through disease detection, environmental monitoring, and newborn and maternal screening.

“[Mason] put in a special request for the Hygienic Lab for additional funding,” said Sen. Brian Schoenjahn, D-Arlington.  “It is necessary to update some of the funding. The Hygienic Lab is used every day by the state and by law. They have to be available.”

The Hygienic Lab’s appropriations are at their lowest level since 1997, said Christopher Atchison, the lab’s director. Since state cuts in 2009, the lab has been forced to reduce the equivalent of 32 full-time positions and freeze equipment replacement in the facility. Roughly 50 percent of the equipment is fully depreciated, Atchison said.

The funds would restore appropriations to 2009 levels and provide the lab with a chance to increase its productivity for the state.

“If you don’t maintain your staff or equipment, you can’t provide that assurance the way Iowans have come to expect us to,” Atchison said.

The funding will need to be signed by the governor in April, following a lengthy process.

The budget committees in the Legislature propose target budgets. Specific dollar amounts are given to the subcommittees to spend. The head and members on the subcommittee allocate funding from the target budget.

Budget targets are then released in March in spreadsheets. Budgets — in the hands of the full appropriation committees — are made into a bill. The bill’s release in April is the first indication if the allocation will support a tuition freeze at the regent universities.

“I think because of their diligence, a lot of legislators are more open to saying, ‘Yeah, you’ve found the cuts we asked you to and upheld your end of the bargain, so we’re going to make sure you get the funding you’ve asked for,’ ” Byrnes said.

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