Republican leaders to cut $250M from UW budget, making Wisconsin one of only six states reducing higher-ed funding

AP and WiG reports

The Legislature’s budget-writing committee voted Friday to cut the University of Wisconsin’s budget by $250 million and eliminate tenure protections for faculty from state law — moves derided by Democrats, who argued the changes would hurt both higher education and the state’s economy.

The budget cut is $50 million less than the $300 million proposed by Gov. Scott Walker in his budget proposal.

The Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee, on a party line vote, also approved continuing a tuition freeze for two more years and rejected Walker’s plan to give UW more independence from state laws and oversight.

Instead, more limited flexibilities would be given to UW to save money on purchasing and the university would be exempt from state rules on building projects funded entirely through gifts or grants. Republicans expressed remorse about the cut, but said the flexibilities would help UW deal with it. The cut was $50 million less than Walker proposed.

Democrats say the cuts, along with others in Walker’s budget, are the result of his bungling of the economy. They say that the state faces a $2.2 billion shortfall due to massive tax cuts that Walker-led Republicans gave to corporations and wealthy people.

Millions of dollars were given to Walker cronies and donors through the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. There were no rules requiring that companies receiving grants or massive tax cuts from WEDC would create new jobs in Wisconsin, and many of recipients shipped jobs to other states or overseas. Many of them defaulted on loans without consequences, and WEDC lost track of many loans.

As a result, untold millions of dollars disappeared through the agency. The Legislature has since removed Walker as its chair. WEDC, which was championed by editorialists across the state, including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, now appears headed for elimination.

While Wisconsin moves toward massive higher-education cuts, most other states have been investing more money in higher education this year. Only 5 other states — Arizona, Illinois, Louisiana, Connecticut and West Virginia — are considering such cuts.

The 26 institutions in the UW System serve about 180,000 students statewide.

The 13 four-year and 13 two-year institutions in the system already have been announcing layoffs and other budget cuts to deal with Walker’s proposed $300 million reduction for them.

In the past decade, state spending on higher education per student in Wisconsin dropped 20.3 percent compared with 5.9 percent nationally, according to data provided by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

The budget committee’s plan for the UW system was added to the state budget, which the committee is likely to complete next week. From there, it heads to the Senate and Assembly, both controlled by Republicans, where it could be changed before it’s voted on next month. Walker can then make extensive changes through his broad veto power.

About a dozen protesters were removed by police throughout the meeting for speaking out against the committee’s moves.

In addition to cuts, the proposal would remove tenure protections from law, leaving it to the UW Board of Regents to restore. The board, whose members are appointed by Walker, could also fire any staff or tenured faculty member.

UW System President Ray Cross Cross and board vice president Regina Millner promised to immediately incorporate tenure into its policy.

The committee also voted to make changes to shared governance provisions, taking power away from faculty, students and staff to have a voice in campus decisions and giving more authority to campus chancellors and the UW System Board of Regents.

Democrats tried to undo all the cuts, but didn’t have the votes.

“People don’t like these cuts,” said Rep. Chris Taylor, a Democrat from Madison. “They don’t want to cut our public education system.”

Walker’s original proposal included the cuts tied with a tuition freeze and a transformation of UW’s organizational structure into a new model known as a public authority. Walker cast it as an extension of the 2011 law known his signature legislative achievement that essentially ended collective bargaining for most public workers, including K-12 teachers.

Walker is expected to launch a presidential run once he signs the budget into law late next month or in July.

His plan for UW ran into opposition from Republicans who were reluctant to cede so much authority to the university, in part over fears that it would lead to higher tuition increases.

Walker had wanted to limit future tuition increases after two years to no more than the rate of inflation. The committee was not going to go along with those limits.

Republican Sen. Steve Nass, of Whitewater, said that was bad news for the middle class and the move sends “a green light to UW Administrators that the sky-is-the-limit on tuition in fall 2017.”