Senate proposes $8.2 million increase for public universities

The Iowa Capitol. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday approved a $8.2 million increase for Iowa’s public universities, a proposal in opposition to the House’s Regents funding freeze.

The committee also advanced budget bills for agriculture and natural resources programs and Iowa courts.

The education budget, which passed the committee by a party-line vote, would backfill a fiscal year 2021 cut of $8 million. The Board of Regents would distribute the funds among the schools, Sen. Chris Cournoyer, R-LeClaire said. 

Meanwhile, the House has proposed no increase for Regents universities in 2022, leaving the schools with last year’s budget cut and a tuition and fee freeze. House and Senate lawmakers will have to agree on a budget proposal before the end of session and send it to Gov. Kim Reynolds for approval. Reynolds in January proposed an additional $15 million to the universities.

Democrats in both chambers lobbied for additional funding, arguing that backfilling the 2021 cuts may not be sufficient. Sen. Jackie Smith, D-Sioux City, noted that public universities might raise tuition without an increase in state allocations. Unlike the House proposal, the Senate bill would not require Regents universities to keep their freeze on tuition rates and fees in fiscal year 2022.

“I don’t know why we’re not supporting them more,” Smith said. “I don’t understand it.”

The Appropriations Committee voted 11-8 to move the proposal through subcommittee and committee, making it eligible for debate on the Senate floor. In that same meeting, the committee approved bills on agriculture and judicial branch funding for fiscal year 2022.

Agriculture budget proposal would be small decrease from fiscal year 2021

The Senate would allocate $42.7 million from the general fund to Iowa agriculture under its budget proposal, a net decrease of over $500,000 from last year’s budget. The proposal passed along party lines, 11-8.

Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Hiawatha, pointed to a lack of increased funding for the Department of Natural Resources. With the pandemic driving Iowans to public parks, the derecho destroying trees in Eastern Iowa and an ongoing water quality crisis, Mathis said, more money was needed.

“Since the governor shelved her Invest in Iowa plan… we’ve got no new money going into this,” she said. 

The proposed budget allocates $3 million from the general fund to the Department of Agriculture’s Water Quality Initiative. Additional allocations come from the Environment First Fund and the groundwater protection fund. Sen. Craig Williams, R-Manning, responded that the bill would free up an additional $490,000 for soil and water conservation through the Environment First Fund.

Judicial branch would see salary increases

The Senate proposed $190.9 million for Iowa’s judicial branch in fiscal year 2022, an increase of over $6 million from this year. The allocation would include an additional $6.3 million for Iowa courts, $1.4 million of which would be for judge and magistrate raises.

Sen. Todd Taylor, D-Cedar Rapids, asked whether any of the funds would go toward specialty courts that focus on addiction, mental health and family issues. Sen. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, responded that the bill includes $3.8 million that could be channeled toward specialty courts.

“That’s something we’ve been phasing in over a period of time, and different counties, different judicial districts have different approaches,” Garrett said. 

 The Senate Appropriations Committee voted unanimously to move the bill out of subcommittee and committee.