A preview of issues facing the 2018 Iowa Legislature.

DES MOINES -- Leaders at Iowa’s public universities spent the summer devising five-year plans that envision increasing tuition as much as 7 percent a year without more state funding.

But amid grim budget projections, some lawmakers say even status quo funding is a long shot. Some expect the Legislature to claw back money already committed to universities.

That would compound cuts lawmakers leveled against the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa in the last session, when they rescinded a combined $30-plus million for the 2017 and 2018 budget years.

“Based on what the (Revenue Estimating Conference) did, it appears to me that Iowans will see a de-appropriations bill soon,” Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, said in December.

University leaders declined to speculate whether they’d push for even higher tuition increases if deeper cuts are made in the session that begins Monday.

“It would be inappropriate to comment before the Board of Regents makes a formal tuition request and before the Legislature has convened or adopted a single budget bill,” said UI spokeswoman Jeneane Beck.

Budget cuts will be among the first issues lawmakers tackle when they reconvene. New forecasts predict $7.2 billion in revenue for the current budget year — below projections set when the Legislature crafted its 2018 budget last spring.

That could force lawmakers to find $45 million to $90 million in reductions, and regents institutions are a likely target as they were also last year.

House Minority Leader Mark Smith, D-Marshalltown, voiced opposition to steep cuts.

“We’ve already gone through the seven worst years for funding for public education,” he said. “We’re seeing Iowa families having to foot more of the bill for the UNI, ISU, UI. We’re seeing the highest tuitions, I think in the United States, for community colleges. More of that burden falls on Iowa’s working families than ever before.”

Board of Regents President Mike Richards said he expects to take up tuition rates for the 2018-19 academic year in February. The board postponed its discussion from the fall, when it typically occurs, because it’s committed to set rates only after this year and wants to see what lawmakers do.

“One of the key messages we heard is that students and families do not want multiple tuition increases during the year,” he said in October.

In hopes of creating predictability, regents convened a task force last summer asking university presidents to submit five-year tuition plans. Those plans included 7-percent annual hikes for resident undergraduates at the UI and ISU if state support doesn’t improve.

UNI President Mark Nook proposed an annualized 5 percent increase if state funding stays flat — pitching a tuition spike of nearly 12 percent in the next academic year if appropriations drop 3.2 percent for 2019.

The group canceled a meeting with lawmakers because few responded to the invitation. And many criticized universities’ rate proposals as too high.

Gov. Kim Reynolds said she wants to keep higher education costs down.

“That’s where I come from any time we’re talking about increasing costs to Iowans that are attending our colleges and universities,” she said.

She touted efforts to make education affordable — reducing the need for remediation in math and science by better preparing high schoolers, and increasing the number of Iowans leaving high school with one or more years of college completed.

“And so I just challenge the regents,” Reynolds said. “I think they can continue to find efficiencies just like our state agencies have, and I would hope that they could do a better job.”

Regents in 2014 launched a sweeping efficiency review of their three campuses that cost nearly $6 million and is expected to save millions more than that.

According to reports from the campuses this year, ISU has saved nearly $22.7 million; UNI has saved more than $16.4 million; and the UI reported saving $16.6 million, with $11 to $12 million in savings expected to continue annually.

Nationally, reports have emerged of universities raising tuition while holding millions in tuition revenue in reserve. Iowa’s public universities are allowed to carry forward “unspent tuition revenue” according to regents spokesman Josh Lehman — though not all do now.

At the end of the 2017 budget year in June, the UI had no such balances. UNI had about a $500,000 and ISU had $2.6 million, according to data provided by Lehman.

ISU in 2017 reduced its pool of unspent tuition revenue sharply from $31.2 million in the 2016 budget year after the Legislature changed timelines for capital appropriations for two large projects, said ISU spokesman John McCarroll. Due to changes in the state funding schedule for ISU’s bioscience facilities, he said, “we utilized all but $2.6 million of the funds.”

The last time the UI held over any tuition revenue was in the 2013 budget year, when it reported a $1.7 million carry-over, according to the regents data.

UNI’s tuition balances at year end have been declining since 2013. UNI spokesman Scott Ketelsen said his institution uses any unspent tuition revenue the following budget year on one-time projects or maintenance.

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