Proposed Regents funding freeze advances in Iowa House

Iowa State University's Memorial Union is a hub of campus activity. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

House Republican lawmakers stood firm on their plan to freeze funding for Iowa’s public universities in fiscal year 2022.

Rep. David Kerr, R-Morning Sun, led discussion of the education budget proposal in a House Appropriations committee meeting Monday. The proposal would increase funding to Iowa’s last-dollar scholarships and tuition grants, for community colleges and vocational rehabilitation facilities, and for childhood mental health and therapeutic classrooms.

It would not increase funding for the three Regents universities: Iowa State, University of Iowa and University of Northern Iowa.

Kerr said the budget freeze was due to federal COVID-19 relief money being channeled into the Regents universities. Together, the three institutions will receive about $240 million in federal funds, Kerr said.

“I think there’s going to be plenty of money,” he said. “I don’t think they’re going to have to cut people or programs.”

Democrats on the committee argued that the one-time federal funds were not an adequate replacement for state allocations, especially as the House budget proposal would also require the Regents universities to continue last year’s freeze on tuition and fees.

“It is so difficult for our students and our institutions to be able to manage under these circumstances,” said Rep. Cindy Winckler, D-Davenport. “Almost 70% of their revenue comes from tuition and fees.”

Republicans on the committee noted that the universities would still receive the same amount of state funding as they did last year, just without an increase. In the fiscal year 2021 budget, lawmakers cut $8 million from Regents universities.

How much general funding would each Regents university receive under the House budget proposal?

  • University of Iowa: $215,605,480
  • Iowa State University: $172,144,766
  • University of Northern Iowa: $98,296,620

Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, agreed with Kerr that there would be sufficient federal funding for the upcoming fiscal year. He noted that Regents universities had not held their usual number of in-person classes during the COVID-19 pandemic, which may have saved them some money.

“A lot of the Regents didn’t hold in-person classes … it would seem to me there could be some cost saving there for the Regent universities,” Holt said.

The three university presidents in February met with a House Appropriations subcommittee in February and reported over $200 million in losses due to the pandemic. They cited additional costs to hold classes safely, such as installing audio equipment and rearranging in-person spaces, and millions of dollars in lost tuition.

“There’s been a generational shift in who pays for public higher education,” University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld said. “From the state, you go back 25 years ago, you were more like 75% of our overall educational budget. Now it’s closer to 20%.”

The Gazette reported in 2020 that last year’s $8 million decrease in Regents funding followed more than $30 million in cuts in fiscal years 2017 and 2018. The fiscal year 2020 budget was $56 million less than the universities received in 2001, according to the Gazette.

Lawmakers voted 15-10 in favor of the budget proposal, moving it to the House floor for consideration. The House and the Senate will need to compromise on a budget to send to Gov. Kim Reynolds before the session ends.

Both Reynolds and the Senate have proposed increases for Regents universities in fiscal year 2022. Reynolds suggested a $15 million increase. Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said Friday his caucus planned an increase of at least $8 million for Regents universities.