March 1, 2015

Private college presidents say state school funding plan threatens stability

University of Dubuque president Jeffrey Bullock, Central College president Mark Putnam and Grand View president Kent Henning. (L-R)

University of Dubuque president Jeffrey Bullock, Central College president Mark Putnam and Grand View president Kent Henning. (L-R)

The leaders of Iowa’s private colleges and universities say the stability of the state’s higher education “ecosystem” is threatened by the proposed “performance-based” funding formula for the three state-supported universities.

Mark Putnam, the president of Central College in Pella, says rewarding the state universities with more tax dollars if they enroll more Iowa high school graduates is “perilous” not only for private colleges, but the public universities as well.

“Instability is not a friend to students’ education or research, so changes that occur abruptly can be incredibly disruptive and it creates behavior patterns that are not healthy for institutions,” he says. “So if institutions begin to look at: ‘How can I take students from the others?’ or ‘How can I start to position myself to win?’…then it becomes something that’s not helpful.”

Grand View president Kent Henning says even though legislators haven’t approved the plan yet, the University of Iowa is already reacting. “It’s now financial aid season and we are getting reports of students receiving very generous financial aid packages from the University of Iowa, almost free rides,” he says. “And while that’s wonderful for those students…I think the state’s taxpayers should be wondering and asking: ‘What’s going on? How is that possible?’ if the state universities keep coming back to the legislature pleading poverty.”

University of Dubuque president Jeffrey Bullock says it is “ludicrous” for the public universities, especially the University of Iowa, to start adjusting enrollment policy to more strongly favor in-state rather than out-of-state students. “Right now over 90 percent of the college-going population of this state stays in the state anyway,” Bullock says. “Why would we want to erect a wall…that effectively keeps potential not just students out — higher net paying students, by the way — but also future employees that help grow the economy and fill the gap, the employment gap that we all know exists in this state?”

The three private college presidents discussed the issue during a joint appearance on Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press” program this past weekend. Gary Steinke, the executive director of the Iowa Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, says “every other state” that has tied state tax dollar support to in-state student enrollment has abandoned the effort.

“Tennessee was the first to try it in 2009 and it doesn’t work and they don’t do it any more. They have taken the enrollment weighting out of their performance-based funding plan and so so has Indiana and so has Virginia and so has Maine,” Steinke says. “I mean, they don’t use it any more because it doesn’t work.” Steinke says the proposal has sparked a “sector war” in Iowa’s high education community — for an idea that research shows ultimately makes no improvement in student performance.

The Board of Regents — the nine-member panel that governs the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa — has proposed a change in the formula that distributes state tax dollars to the three public universities. Regents officials say it’s designed, in large part, to reward UNI which has gotten the smallest share of state support in the past and where over 90 percent of students are Iowa residents. The loser in the change would be the University of Iowa, where nearly half of the students come from out-of-state.


Two charged with cheating at Clear Lake fishing tournament

dnr-LOGO-thmbIt’s not uncommon for fishermen to exaggerate, but two men from northern Iowa are facing charges for their alleged “fish tale.”

Twenty-three-year-old Aaron Lauber of Clear Lake and 25-year-old Jason Schuttler of Manly took part in a state-sponsored fishing tournament at Clear Lake on February 8. The pair turned in the winning entry of 50 fish and claimed a prize package valued at $1,500.

 Acting on a tip that some of the fish were caught outside the four-hour length of the tournament, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources launched an investigation. Lauber and Schuttler are now facing charges of theft by deception.


No red flags raised in first spring flood outlook (video)

flood-predictionThe National Weather Service has issued its first flood prediction for the spring.

Senior Hydrologist Jeff Zogg says there’s not much to raise concern at this point. “Obviously we have a lot more winter to go through yet before we reach the springtime season,” Zogg says, “but based on what we’re seeing right now, the spring flood outlook for most of Iowa calls for a near normal risk of flooding at most locations.”

He says the lower Raccoon River area and the Des Moines River area below the Raccoon have a slightly higher flood risk. Zogg says several factors go into the flood forecast. “The snowpack itself, how deep it is, the soil moisture, frost depth, stream levels, those sort of things. We have a couple of factors that tend to increase the risk and a couple tending to decrease the risk, so overall you add everything up and the overall risk is near normal for this time of year,” Zogg explains.

One of the unknown factors is how quickly the snow will melt “And obviously the timing of any kind of rainfall as well as the warm temperatures, that will have a big impact on the potential for flooding,” Zogg says. “We have noticed over the past several years there has been a tendency for our springs to be quite wet across the state of Iowa. So, if that happens again this year the timing will be everything — because for example if the ground is still frozen there we’ll have more runoff — and we’ll have to continue monitoring to see when those rains do arrive if they do.”

If the frost doesn’t cause runoff then the amount of water that can be absorbed into the ground becomes and issue. And the groundwater levels could also be a problem this spring. “Those levels are actually above to much above normal across the state just because of the wet fall we had,” Zogg says. As he has pointed out, a lot can change in the next several weeks. There will be an updated report on the flood outlook in early March.



Supreme Court upholds Sioux City speed camera ticket ruling

Michael Jacobsma

Michael Jacobsma

The Iowa Supreme Court has upheld a lower court ruling that speed camera ticket issued by Sioux City did not violate the constitutional rights of a Sioux Center man.

Michael Jacobsma had argued the speed camera ticket violated his right to due process because it never proved that he was behind the wheel of the car at the time.

The Supreme Court ruling says the city is using the cameras to improve public safety. The ruling also says Jacobsma admitted he owned the vehicle, had registered the vehicle, but offered no evidence that someone else was driving the vehicle at the time of the speed camera violation.

Jacobsma spoke with RadioIowa about the ruling. “I am disappointed in the court’s ruling, but I respect their opinion,” Jacobsma says. “I still think that the Sioux City ordinance and other ordinances like it around the state are unreasonable uses of the city government’s power.” Jacobsma is a lawyer who represented himself over the ticket issued after his car was spotted going 67 miles-an-hour in a 55-mile-an-hour zone on Interstate 29 in 2012.

This was considered a civil case, and Jacobsma says the person alleging the wrongdoing has historically always had to prove it, which he says does not happen here. “I still believe it allows them to simply prove that somebody committed a violation without having to prove they actually operated the vehicle. And I just think that’s an overreach by the government. So, I’m disappointed, but I respect the courts opinion,” Jacobsma says.

The ruling appears to center on the fact that Jacobsma didn’t say someone else was driving his car at the time of the ticket. Jacobsma says he agrees with that, but says it was not as key as it appears.

“I think that that was just something that the court used to try avoiding really addressing the main issue,” Jacobsma says. “Because to me, I don’t think it really mattered that much, because the ordinance only provided for one very narrow circumstance to rebut the presumptions that are in the ordinance — and that’s if you file a stolen vehicle report.” He says there was no way in the ordinance to fight the ticket by saying someone else was driving your car at the time of the ticket.

Jacobsma says there is the possibility someone else could challenge the ruling using another avenue. “But otherwise, I mean this really does kind of give blanket authority to any municipality in the state of Iowa to issue these kinds of ordinances. I think it’s unfortunate, because I think it is an overreach of government power,” according the Jacobsma.

Attempts to ban traffic cameras by the Iowa Legislature have failed. The Iowa Department of Transportation did institute rules requiring the cities that use them to prove that they are being used to improve safety.

See the Supreme Courts full ruling here: Speed Camera ruling PDF

Photo courtesy of Michael Jacobsma.


New Iowa tourism ads feature Napoleon (video)

New Iowa Tourism ads feature Napoleon visiting attractions in the state like the High Trestle Bridge.

New Iowa Tourism ads feature Napoleon visiting attractions in the state like the High Trestle Bridge.

The Iowa Tourism Office is going back in time hoping to generate some future business. Tourism Office spokesperson, Jessica O’Riley explains the premise of the annual marketing campaign.

“For out television and our digital ads we are featuring Napoleon Bonaparte, who made the tragic mistake of selling Iowa as part of the Louisiana Purchase back in 1803,” O’Riley explains. “He has come back to experience what he gave up, and after visiting he realizes he made a huge mistake.”

Travelers meeting Napoleon great him with the campaign’s theme: “This is Iowa” and a sullen Napolen replies “Yup.” O’Riley says they are hoping the leader know for his small stature will help them by “trying to cut through all the clutter of the travel ads and make a memorable impression about Iowa.”

O’Riley says the tourism campaign will spend $1.5 million and focus on key cities outside the state. “We are strategically located next to various metros, Kansas City, Omaha, Chicago, Minneapolis/St. Paul. We are an easy trip for them to get to us, so we are saying ‘come on over and experience what we’ve got’,” according to O’Riley. She says a survey of those asking for Iowa tourism information found 55 percent of the requests came from out-of-state.

“Tourism expenditures topped $7.7 billion for 2013 — which is the most recent year we have figures for. It makes a huge impact on the state, that’s more than $32 million in state tax dollars generated — especially the ones from out-of-state — they leave their tax dollars, but don’t draw down any services,” O’Riley says. They are also hoping to get visitors involved using #thisisiowa.

“We are encouraging travelers as they’re visiting our state to take photos and if they are posting them on Instragram, or Facebook or Twitter or Vine videos to hashtag those, ‘this is Iowa’. And we had a whole hashtag gallery set up where they can view those,” O’Riley says. “Its’ a great resource for inspiration about travel in Iowa.”
Images and video courtesy of the Iowa Tourism Office.

Legislative fight over school funding continues

Greg Forristall

Greg Forristall

There was angry debate Wednesday in the Iowa House Education Committee as Republicans and Democrats battle over how much state money to spend on K-12 schools next year.

Republicans say the state cannot afford the four percent increase approved by Senate Democrats. Representative Greg Forristall, a Republican from Macedonia, suggested a salary freeze for teachers would free up more money for new textbooks and other school initiatives.

“The federal government is telling us that farmers will make 3 percent less in this coming year,” he said. “…Maybe this is the year that teachers could just accept last year’s salary.”

Sharon Steckman

Sharon Steckman

Representative Sharon Steckman, a Democrat from Mason City, is a retired school teacher and she accused Republicans of trying to “get rid of public education” in Iowa.

“Asking teachers to accept last year’s salaries I find quite interesting because there are places in our state budget that we haven’t even talked about cutting,” Steckman said.

The Republican-led committee then voted, again, for increasing general state aid to public schools by one-and-a-quarter percent for the next academic year.

Farm Bureau members swarm into statehouse, urge lawmakers to boost gas tax

Craig Hill

Craig Hill

Over 200 members of the Iowa Farm Bureau are at the statehouse today, urging legislators to pass an increase in the state gas tax. Iowa Farm Bureau president Craig Hill says for the past four years this has been a priority for the organization because there is a “hole” in the fund for fixing Iowa roads and bridges.

“We’ve gone through the logical arguments. We’ve gone through the political arguments,” Hill said during a news conference. “Now is the time for action.”

A bill that would hike the state tax on motor fuel by 10 cents a gallon cleared the Senate Transportation Committee Tuesday and the House Transportation Committee will vote on similar legislation later today. A national organization called “TRIP” issued a report today concluding 27 percent of the state’s major urban roads are in “poor or mediocre condition” and 21 percent of Iowa’s bridges are structurally deficient.

Carolyn Bonafas-Kelly

Carolyn Bonafas-Kelly

Carolyn Bonafas Kelly, a spokeswoman for the group, said those stats are based on federal data. “Without additional funding at the local, state and federal level, Iowa’s transportation system will continue to deteriorate,” Bonafas Kelly said, “stifling economic growth and progress here in the state.”

Some critics accuse backers of the gas tax hike of manipulating the data to indicate the state’s gas tax receipts aren’t enough to cover the needs in Iowa’s transportation system. Bonafas Kelly said those who drive on Iowa’s roads understand the issue.

“Now we don’t make recommendations in terms of how the state should fund the needed improvements, but I think it is safe to say that the needs are very evident,” Bonafas Kelly said, “and they’re growing each day.”

Hill said farmers are “clamoring” to raise the gas tax because there’s not enough money to fix the state’s roads and bridges, let alone expand the system.

“We have studied and studied and studied and it always comes to one conclusion,” Hill said. “There’s about $215-$230 million needed to maintain the current infrastructure we have today.”

Sharon Presnall, senior vice president of the Iowa Bankers Association, joined Bonafas Kelly and Hill at today’s news conference. Presnall said local bankers understand increasing any tax is a difficult decision for legislators.

“Our decision to support an increase in the fuel tax was not made lightly,” Presnall said, “but we believe that a sound road system is arguably the most significant economic development initiative that the state can provide and we also believe that it’s the cheapest and fairest method for Iowa taxpayers.”

Members of the Iowa Bankers Association plan a lobby day in Des Moines in March, but Presnall said they’re hoping legislators have passed a bill increasing the gas tax long before that.