UW System to See Cuts, More Autonomy under Scott Walker’s Plan

MacIver News Service | January 27, 2015

[Madison, Wisc…] Gov. Scott Walker announced his plan on Tuesday to give the University of Wisconsin System more budgetary flexibility in exchange for an annual decrease in funding of $150 million a year.

The governor’s “Transforming Education” plan would fund the UW System through a block grant from the state. The UW System would have independent authority over spending, according to Walker’s office.

“Reforming the partnership between the state and the UW System will save money and allow the UW System the flexibility to better serve those seeking higher education,” Walker said. “The people of Wisconsin deserve a government that is more effective, more efficient, and more accountable, and this plan protects the taxpayers and allows for a stronger UW System in the future.”

Along with announcing changes to how Wisconsin’s public university system is funded, Walker said he would continue the tuition freeze passed in the last budget for the next two years – for a total of four straight years without an tuition increase.

Once the additional two-year freeze ends, the UW System would be given the authority to raise tuition as it sees fit.

Walker argued that while the UW System would have fewer reporting requirements, the state would still maintain the necessary oversight. This will likely be an important factor to legislators after members of the CPA caucus – including Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) and Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) – discovered a massive surplus essentially hidden by the UW System during last session’s budget debate.

The hidden surplus – totaling hundreds of millions of dollars – led to the initial two-year tuition freeze in 2013.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) raised concerns about the plan, but seemed supportive of the intent.

“As a former regent, I have concerns about a cut of this magnitude without granting flexibilities to the UW System,” Vos said. “It appears that a significant amount of flexibility would be necessary in order to manage such a large decrease off the base budget.”

He said he would work with legislators to determine the best approach for funding the UW System.

“This is a decision that’s not to be taken lightly,” Vos continued. “Legislators will need to determine the best way to give greater freedom to the UW System knowing the state will continue to give the system hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer support.”

Some legislators quickly denounced the governor’s plan, however. Democrats argued it would privatize the UW System.

“Both Democrats and Republicans should be concerned about this attempt to privatize and defund our UW System,” said Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse). “As a mother of two young boys, I want my children to have the same great higher education opportunities that I had. Unfortunately, Gov. Walker’s cuts will put those opportunities further out of reach for many working families and future students.”

While at least one Republican feared the plan would lead to massive spikes in the cost of tuition.

“The governor’s proposal on the UW System would leave tuition-paying middle class families absolutely defenseless from potentially massive spikes in tuition and fees starting in 2017,” said Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater). “I don’t trust the unelected Board of Regents to prioritize the plight of the middle class families.”

Walker will announce his full budget proposal next Tuesday.