Iowa legislators are nowhere near ready to accept the state universities’ suggestion that — in exchange for freezing tuition for in-state undergraduates — that the state take over part of their programs that help needy Iowans pay tuition.
Some favor it, and a small handful are dead-set against the idea. But for the most part, legislators are willing, and expecting, to hear more. They want to see something formal from the Board of Regents who run the universities and Gov. Terry Branstad’s proposed fiscal 2014 budget before judging the idea, a survey by IowaWatch and the Iowa State Daily and Daily Iowan newspapers reveals.
“What we have now is just some words, just a proposal,” Rep. Greg Forristall, R-Macedonia, said.
The state’s Board of Regents are to vote Wednesday on a proposal to freeze next year’s tuition for undergraduate Iowans at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa. The freeze is tied to a decision in October to phase out a program that sets aside at least 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 merit-based financial aid but 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 Daily Iowan asked members of the 2013 General Assembly 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.
“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, an associate principal at North Scott High School who returns to the Statehouse after serving as a state senator from 2005-09. “I am under the impression that we do have a pretty healthy balance. I have always been pro-education.”
Base undergraduate tuition for Iowa residents is $6,678 at the University of Iowa and $6,648 at Iowa State and Northern Iowa. The regents also have asked the state for an additional $40.1 million next fiscal year to help 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, 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.
Senate Majority Leader Michael Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said the fact that the Legislature will have 38 new members next year, 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 General Assembly.
However, “I do think it’s likely the Legislature will do something about it,” Gronstal said.
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Republicans aren’t closing the door on the idea. House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, said, “Thematically, yes, we’re interested in it.”
Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht 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 Daily Iowan at the University of Iowa and Iowa State Daily at Iowa State University contributed to this story.)
This project was produced by Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch.org, a nonprofit, online news website dedicated to collaborating with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative work.