DES MOINES — Student leaders at Iowa’s regent universities got caught in the crossfire of a politically charged budget battle Monday, with one GOP senator telling them to “go back home” because they were being used as props in a Democratic “propaganda” effort to leverage more state spending.

“This is political theater, leave the circus to us,” Sen. Shawn Hamerlinck, R-Dixon, told five student leaders from the University of Iowa, the University of Northern Iowa and Iowa State University who testified at a legislative hearing.

Monday’s “open budget hearing” on education issues came as the legislature attempts to resolve budget differences before the new fiscal year begins July 1.

Gov. Terry Branstad and GOP legislators have set a $5.99 billion limit of state spending for next fiscal year that they say provides a responsible and sustainable funding level. Democrats who hold a 26-24 majority in the Senate are pushing for more spending — especially for education — before they will agree to adjourn the 2011 overtime session.

Hamerlinck thanked the student speakers who participated in the first day of Senate Democratic budget hearings that focused on preschool, K-12, community college and state university funding. However, he told them they would be better served focusing on their individual situations back home rather than worrying about the politicking going on at the Statehouse.

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, chairman of the Senate Education Committee and a member of the hearing panel, called Hamerlinck’s comments “incredibly insulting” and the worst he had heard since a former senator referred to state employees as “bottom feeders” during a Senate floor debate.

“I think Sen. Hamerlinck’s comments were disrespectful, insulting and completely inappropriate,” said Quirmbach, who said he did not raise objections during the hearing because “I think I was too shocked to respond to them.”

During their presentation, university students told of growing debt loads, “wildly” rising tuition and other costs, strained resources and declining quality at regent institutions that have been repeatedly subject to state budget cuts.

“I’m learning just how many flavors Ramen Noodles come in,” said Spencer Walrath, UNI student government president, in discussing the effect that state budget cuts have had on college students.

Lyndsay Harshman, an outgoing past student leader who recently graduated as a doctor who will begin her residency in the University Hospitals pediatrics department, said education cuts are hurting the state in unseen ways. Iowans who are earning college degrees but carrying heavy debt loads are being forced to seek better-paying opportunities outside of the state, a cycle that “drives the brain drain,” she said.

Harshman shrugged off Hamerlinck’s comments after the meeting, saying she talked to him briefly and told him she is “about as conservative as it gets on many issues” but she thinks education is one of Iowa’s great assets and worthy of adequate support from elected officials.

“If they choose to be dismissive, that is unfortunate for their constituents,” she said. As far as being referred to as a prop in Democrats’ political theater, Harshman said, “I’ve been called worse by other people. It’s probably not the worst thing I’ll ever be called in my life.”

Hamerlinck issued a written statement after what he called “Senate Democrats’ dog and pony” education hearing, stating that “students should never be put in the position to be used as political pawns and that is exactly what took place today. It saddens me to see bright young Iowa students being misled about our state’s financial situation. Their view of Iowa’s budget is inaccurate and it is my hope that our Regents institutions are educating them on the facts rather than political propaganda.”

Sen. Steve Kettering, R-Lake View, ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said it was “plain asinine” that students “would be paraded in front of a politically driven show” set up by people who want the state to spend more money.

“No one was invited today to speak for the taxpayers,” he said.

David Miles, president of the state Board of Regents, testified that Iowa’s public universities contribute up to $9 billion annually to Iowa’s economy and that each dollar invested at regent universities returns $15.81 to the state. He said, however. state universities are under growing pressure because of significant cuts in state funding that have shifted the cost burden to students and their families in recent years.

Miles conceded that “I don’t know how many minds can be changed” now that the session has spilled into June, but he said he did not want to pass up an opportunity “to put our great students” in front of lawmakers to press their case and to do so in their own words. He said he was disappointed by the response they got at the close of the hearing.

“I think that is reflective of what is a highly charged partisan environment right now, and I can understand that frustration, but I was disappointed when he moved from expressing that frustration to suggesting that they go home, because they have a valid point of view. No one is living this like they are,” Miles said. “It’s very disappointing for anyone to suggest that they don’t have an equal seat at the table on these decisions.”