GOP lawmakers use budget to bludgeon state universities

The Iowa State University Research Park is an example of how universities benefit Iowa's business community. (Screen shot from ISU Research Park video)

Iowans who remember what it was like to live in a state that prized education no doubt heaved a sigh of relief when a vindictive and counterproductive bill to ban tenure at state universities failed to advance in the Legislature.

Iowa employers, chamber groups and agriculture associations lobbied against that bill, which they said would harm their efforts to recruit workers and also stifle important research on which their industries depend.

Now, Iowans have a new reason to sigh. House Republicans are continuing their ideological vendetta against Iowa’s universities, this time using the state budget as a cudgel. House Republicans last week unveiled legislation that gives state universities zero increase and piles on with a mandated tuition freeze.

GOP leaders cited federal COVID aid coming to the institutions and suggested the cost of running the universities is out of line with decreasing enrollment. But when pressed, they couldn’t even pretend their session-long ideological tantrum over imagined “indoctrination” and perceived persecution of conservatives had nothing to do with the decision.

House Speaker Pat Grassley admitted Thursday in a call with reporters that freedom of speech concerns may have factored into the budget decision.

“That may play into it,” he said. “But honestly, it’s just the cost of providing that education has just become very bloated.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds proposed a $17 million increase for state universities, which was modest given last year’s $8 million budget cut. Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver said Friday the Senate budget includes about $8 million for state universities, although he also raised concerns about “the pushing of liberal ideas through our college kids.”

The university presidents asked lawmakers to replace the budget cut and add $18 million for next year.

The universities received about $115 million in the first two rounds of federal COVID relief. Some of that money was passed through directly to students. Meanwhile, the university presidents told lawmakers in February they had tallied about $185 million in revenue losses because of closed residence halls, tuition refunds for students, canceled events, halted research, suspension of study abroad and added costs for cleaning, social distancing and other safety measures.

More money is coming for universities through the American Rescue Plan. But really, that’s beside the point. Rep. David Kerr, R-Morning Sun, education budget chairman, admitted during last week’s committee meeting that lawmakers didn’t even talk to Regents representatives about how their budget needs might change given the new federal aid. He didn’t explain why community colleges and other post-secondary institutions, which also received federal coronavirus aid, are getting increases in state spending.

Kerr noted university spending has risen while enrollment has fallen — a phenomenon also occurring in K-12 schools — but he offered no data showing how university costs change relative to changes in enrollment. Why bother with details like that when GOP lawmakers are set on making a punitive political point?

As I’ve written before, it’s entirely appropriate for legislators to investigate recent incidents at state universities that infringed on (conservative) students’ freedom of speech. All three incidents reviewed by lawmakers earlier this year were resolved in favor of the students. A bill requiring First Amendment training for student leaders and faculty directly and adequately addresses those concerns, and the Regents in February approved a new First Amendment policy.

But GOP lawmakers, having made their point, are piling on. The House proposal not only zeroes out any increase for state universities but also would tie their hands by freezing tuition, a decision that always has been and should continue to be left to the Board of Regents. The board froze tuition during the pandemic to ease the burden on students, but typically sets rates based on how much universities will receive from the state.

“Understanding what resources are needed — including setting tuition and decisions on when to make adjustments to maintain the quality of Iowa’s public universities — is one of the board’s most important functions,” board spokesman Josh Lehman said in a statement. “The responsibility of setting tuition rests with the board and should continue as such to avoid politicizing Iowa’s tuition rates.”

Iowa’s universities remain a bargain for the state in terms of economic impact.  According to the Board’s most recent report, the Regent universities provided $11.8 billion in added income to the state during the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2018. University activity supports one out every 14 jobs in Iowa and returns nearly $3 for every taxpayer dollar spent, the report shows.

For the sake of making a partisan political point, GOP lawmakers are undermining their own priority of helping businesses attract quality workers. Iowa business leaders, chambers and ag commodity groups should recognize and impress on lawmakers that this budget proposal is just as harmful as the ill-conceived tenure ban. It can hobble Iowa’s competition for top faculty, hinder research prospects and discourage graduates from staying in Iowa.

Iowans don’t have to choose between freedom of speech and having world-class educational institutions. They do need to choose whether they want their taxpayer dollars used to fight ever-escalating political battles or to help Iowa grow and prosper.