All 25-members of a key House committee have voted to freeze tuition at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa at its current level, overriding a tuition hike the board that governs the schools approved for the academic year that begins this fall.

Representative Nick Wagner, a Republican from Marion, suggested the move reflects legislators’ frustration about secrecy in the way the universities spend money.

“When we ask the questions about, you know: what are you spending on utilities, what are you spending on office supplies?” Wagner said, “you don’t get answers.”

According to Wagner, tuition and fee charges at the three state-supported universities went up nearly 180 percent over the past 12 years.

“I think the question has to be asked: why do we have these continual increases above what the cost of living is?” Wagner asked.

The proposed tuition freeze passed the House Appropriations Committee with the support of all 25 Republicans and Democrats on the panel. But Democrats like Representative Tyler Olson of Cedar Rapids suggested the proposal was a political stunt from Republicans in the House who’ve proposed a significant cut in general state support for the three universities.

“I mean I understand the inclination to come back and try to cover up the $31 million hole that we’re going to blast through the budget with an amendment here that talks about keeping tuition low,” Olson said.

Representative Andrew Wenthe, a Democrat from West Union, said it’s “fantasy-land” to forbid a tuition increase that would help fill the budget hole Republicans intend to create.

“With the cuts that you’re making — $31 million this year, $19 million last year — I just don’t understand how you think that public education will continue to thrive in this state,” Wenthe said. Wenthe, however, voted along with everyone else on the committee to freeze tuition.

In the 1980s, Governor Branstad threated to veto a bill authored by then-State Representative Jack Hatch that would have limited tuition increases at the state universities to no more than the rate of inflation at the nation’s universities.

As for this latest attempt to freeze tuition, a spokesman for the governor issued a written tatement.

“The governor will have to review this, just as he would with any piece of legislation,” Tim Albrecht, the governor’s press secretary, said. “Specifically, the governor would review this in conjunction with the Board of Regents to determine the impact a cap would have on the ability to continue other programs within the Regents universities.”

In December, the Board of Regents voted to raise tuition by $240 per semester this fall for in-state students. That translates into a percentage increase of 3.75.

During today’s committee meeting, Representative Wagner said the three state universities are getting over a billion dollars in state support and a $31 million cut shouldn’t “decimate” the schools.

AUDIO of tuition freeze discussion in House Appropriations Committee

 (This story was updated at 5:31 p.m.)