Gov. Scott Walker is fond of comparing his proposed $300 million cut to the University of Wisconsin System to Act 10, his signature legislation that gutted collective bargaining for public workers and sparked massive protests.
Opposition to the UW cuts doesn’t look to flare that intensely, but system leaders have no plans to go quietly into the budget cut night. Despite their president’s call for calm, campus heads are ratcheting up warnings about how the cuts would cripple the system and starting to mobilize tens of thousands of alumni in an effort to convince Walker and legislators to scale the reduction back.
“I realize this may make you feel helpless,” UW-Whitewater Chancellor Richard Telfer wrote on that school’s website. “However, the beauty of democracy is that we all have a voice. I would encourage you to use that voice. … We simply cannot allow the UW System, one of the state’s greatest assets and economic drivers, to be weakened in this way.”
Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said in an email to The Associated Press that the governor’s plan is to empower the system leadership and give them flexibility over the use of their resources.
The Republican governor’s two-year budget plan calls for cutting the system by $300 million while keeping a tuition freeze in place for in-state students. In exchange Walker would give the system more freedom from state oversight and laws on building projects, procurement and tuition increases when the freeze expires in 2017.
Walker, who is grappling with a $2 billion deficit while ramping up a 2016 presidential run, has said less oversight would give the system the flexibility to absorb the cut, much like he said Act 10 helped government employers absorb budget cuts in 2011.
“Our proposal gives new cost-savings reforms to the UW through an authority, while protecting the hardworking families and students by freezing tuition for another two years,” Patrick said.
The depth of the cut coupled with the inability to raise tuition to offset it has left chancellors stunned. A Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimate shows UW-Madison next year would lose $57.7 million, nearly 12 percent of its current annual budget. UW-Whitewater would take the biggest percentage cut at nearly 19 percent.
UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank railed against the cuts. She warned they’ll lead to layoffs, force tuition increases for out-of-state and international students, push disgruntled faculty to leave and hurt the flagship campus’ reputation.
System President Ray Cross followed that up by imploring chancellors and regents not to view the cuts in a “rhetorical, inflammatory or emotional way.”
But campus leaders aren’t sitting still.
Whitewater’s Telfer made his appeal for a write-in campaign on last week. Blank sent a blast email to UW-Madison’s alumni the day of the regents meeting imploring them to write to Walker and legislators and demand they reduce the cut, saying the reduction “puts at risk the investment that generations of Wisconsinites have made to create a highly ranked university in our state.”
Blank also has scheduled a series of public forums on campus next week to discuss how the cuts would affect the school.
Tom Luljak, a spokesman for UW-Milwaukee, which stands to lose nearly $20 million in the budget’s first year, said that school’s alumni have been calling asking for information about how to contact legislators. He said the school is preparing information for Panther Advocates, a formal group of active alumni who communicate with lawmakers regularly, although that group’s efforts on the cut hasn’t begun yet. Chancellor Mark Mone has promised to reach out to any group that might help lobby for more money.
“I can’t help but be angry,” Mone said during a Jan. 28 speech. “I can’t help but be upset.”
Lynne Williams, a spokeswoman for UW-Superior, which is in line to lose $2.3 million in the first year, said campus officials plan to lobby lawmakers during the Superior community’s annual state Capitol lobbying day on Feb. 25.
Walker tweeted that critics of the UW cuts sound like critics of Act 10, which he said helped the state.
His budget still needs legislative approval. The Legislature’s budget committee will spend months revising it before forwarding it on for votes in the full Assembly and Senate. Republican leaders already have said the UW cuts look too deep and the governor himself has said he would be open to giving the system more money.
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