Reynolds’ state budget proposal underfunds public universities’ request

Under Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposed budget, Iowa’s public universities would see a $15 million budget increase — falling short of the regents’ request for $26 million in additional appropriations.


Ryan Adams for the Daily Iowan

Members of the Senate take part in a session within the senate chambers of the Iowa State Capitol Building on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021 in Des Moines.

Sarah Watson, Executive Editor

Iowa’s three regent-governed universities would see a budget boost of $15 million under Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposed state budget — underfunding university leaders’ requests after lawmakers cut from the Iowa public universities last year.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds is proposing a funding boost of $15 million for the state Board of Regents, which governs the state’s three public universities, to be allocated for fiscal 2022 as the board sees fit. Her proposal, which would have to be proposed and passed by lawmakers during the session, falls short of the regents’ request. The regents asked state lawmakers to restore an $8 million cut on top of a general fund boost of $18 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2021.

The funding recommendation isn’t divided between the three universities, and would be used as the Board of Regents “sees fit,” Iowa Department of Management staffer Joel Lunde wrote in an email to The Daily Iowan. Reynolds is also recommending a $15 million increase in fiscal 2023, again underfunding what the regents have asked for in the last three years. 

Public universities’ two main funding sources are state appropriations, decided each year by lawmakers in Des Moines, and tuition revenue. In the last two decades, tuition has risen as state appropriations have stayed the same or faced cuts by lawmakers. 

Regent Executive Director Mark Braun said in an emailed statement that the regents were “appreciative of Governor Reynolds’ continued support for Iowa’s Regent universities.”

In her Condition of the State address Tuesday, Reynolds briefly mentioned higher education, but focused mostly on touting Future Ready Iowa, a program that connects people with occupational training that has a goal to reach 70 percent of the state having education and training beyond high school by 2025. 

“We have exceptional universities, colleges, and community colleges in this state. But not all skills are learned in a classroom. On-the-job training and reskilling are some of the most valuable ways to advance our workforce and increase Iowan’s wages,” she said.

Braun went on to say the regents would “continue to be good stewards with funding that our universities receive.”

We will continue to advocate for the level of financial resources necessary to continue to provide the accessible, first-class education that our students deserve,” Braun said.

Public universities in Iowa will return to regular tuition increases in the fall of 2021 after the regents froze tuition for three semesters because of the COVID-19 pandemic, regent President Mike Richards told the regents in November. The five-year multi-year tuition-increase model, adopted in 2019, is an attempt to offer predictability in tuition hikes for students and families. 

University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld, in a November meeting with Iowa City philanthropists, said he urged the regents to return to the tuition model in an effort to make up for a trend of disinvestment in higher education and expected declines in enrollment facing institutions nationwide.

During the meeting, he noted that despite the state budget doubling over the last two decades and the Consumer Price Index increasing by more than 60 percent, state support for higher education has declined by a net $8 million.

“In a world of continuing reduced state funding, we’re left with very little to consider,” Harreld said. “Other than recruiting more and more students, growing market share, adding residence halls and classrooms, increasing the cost of tuition, and I’d argue, ‘here we go,’ that’s exactly the opposite of what we need to do.”

Democratic lawmakers in Johnson County interviewed by the DI ahead of Reynolds’ address expressed disappointment in the cuts to the regents’ budget at the end of the legislative session.

Iowa Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said that university and Board of Regents leaders needed to actively engage more with people at the statehouse to improve relationships with lawmakers and advocate for more funding for the regent-governed institutions. 

“These are the people that will make these decisions,” Bolkcom said, referring to lawmakers. “They need to establish those meetings and get talking to people. I would include the Board of Regents in that,” Bolkcom said. “The Board of Regents needs to much more aggressively be advocates for state appropriations.”

He cited the $8 million budget cut to the regents for fiscal 2021 after the state’s dollars were appropriated as evidence that higher education isn’t a priority for lawmakers in power. 

“We took a funding cut of $8 million in the middle of the night for no apparent reason,” Bolkcom said. “I don’t know why they don’t like them, but the universities have been cut, and cut, and cut and we need to figure out a way to just stop that.”

Iowa ended fiscal 2020 in June with a $305 million budget surplus and $770 million in rainy day funds. In its fiscal 2021 budget, Iowa lawmakers kept many programs at status quo in anticipation of COVID-19 denting the state budget. Lawmakers raised funds in some areas, like keeping a K-12 funding increase of $100 million and Medicaid by $32 million. In addition to the regents, lawmakers cut the Secretary of State’s budget and the judicial branch’s budget.

Rep. Christina Bohannan, D-Iowa City, a UI law professor and former Faculty Senate president described regent universities as economic drivers that should be invested in. 

“First of all, the more educated population you have, the more people you have starting successful businesses and doing interesting research — this is a driver of economic growth,” Bohannon said. “I mean we’re seeing that with the Entrepreneurial Center, with some of the Agricultural Research at Iowa State.”

The regent universities have taken some steps to tighten budgets. 

In April, the state Board of Regents established a committee to review and identify cost efficiencies in the regents system. In December 2019, the regents signed a public-private partnership for a private company to manage its utilities system. Reynolds mentioned her desire for more public-private partnerships during her Condition of the State, advocating for more partnership between public and private entities to address affordable housing.