Iowa House panel votes to freeze tuition

Appropriation bill would also require $31 million in state university budget cuts

James Q. Lynch
Published: March 22 2012 | 8:00 pm - Updated: 3 April 2014 | 2:40 pm in
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The state’s regent universities would see their budgets cut by roughly $31 million from this year and be forced to freeze tuition rates for the 2012-13 fiscal year under a higher education appropriation bill that passed through a House panel on a party-line vote Wednesday.

The tuition freeze came as an unexpected amendment to the higher education appropriations bill, which already had a $65 million difference between what the House and Senate wanted to spend.

“We’ve asked the regents for years why tuition increases outpace inflation or outpace the cost of living,” said Rep. Nick Wagner, R-Marion, vice chairman of the appropriations committee. “The argument is ‘Well, the state hasn’t increased funding,’ but even when the state has increased funding, tuition has increased.”

Democrats joined Republicans in attaching the tuition freeze amendment to the bill, but then voted against the bill once it was attached.

“Look, we all want to keep tuition low, and the amendment says we will keep tuition low,” said Tyler Olson, D-Cedar Rapids, ranking member on the House Appropriations Committee. He said the tuition freeze was “ridiculous” in light of the House’s overall cut to regent university funding.

“The whole story is if they really wanted to keep tuition low, they would walk the walk,” Olson said. “The amendment that they passed is a bunch of talk and a worthless piece of paper … The vote that matters is the vote that funds the institutions.”

Overall, there’s a difference of more than $100 million between the House and the Senate when it comes to spending for education, which includes the regent universities, community colleges, tuition assistance and the Iowa Department of Education.

“What will have to happen is universities will have to say ‘Where are more cuts at?’ We will have more unfortunate situations like at the University of Northern Iowa, where we had to make that decision today that cut curriculum and courses and teachers,” said Board of Regents President Craig Lang, who got word of the amendment during the Board of Regents meeting in Iowa City. “What that means is we will have to go back and cut more.”

Lang noted that the tuition freeze, as well as the overall appropriation, is still up for negotiation with the Senate, and, ultimately, Gov. Terry Branstad.

“Our concern right now is we don’t want to get in a fight with the House,” Lang said. “What we want to do is for the House members to understand how important public universities are.”

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said the tuition cap seemed impractical.

“I am very interested to see if this can pass a vote on the House floor,” Quirmbach said. “As much as one would like to live in a world where costs never go up, that is just not the case.”

Rep. Cindy Winckler, D-Davenport, said the cut to higher education is detrimental to the state’s future.

“We are eating our seed corn, we are making a huge mistake,” she said.

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