Lawmakers have varied reactions to Scott Walker's UW System proposal
Written by Jessie Opoien, The Capital Times
 
State lawmakers responded mostly along party lines to Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to cut funding to the University of Wisconsin System by 13 percent over the next two years.
 
The Associated Press reported Tuesday that Walker will propose turning the 13 four-year campuses and 13 two-year colleges of the UW System into a public authority, giving the university more flexibility over a wide array of matters that are now mandated by state law.
 
The UW System had requested $95 million from the 2015-17 budget, a request based largely on the financial impact of a second proposed tuition freeze. The governor will still move forward with the freeze, but the $300 million cut comes with more flexibility and autonomy for the university.
 
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said he is still reviewing the governor's proposal.
 
"As a former regent, I have concerns about a cut of this magnitude without granting flexibilities to the UW System. It appears that a significant amount of flexibility would be necessary in order to manage such a large decrease off the base budget," Vos, who served as a student member of the UW Board of Regents from 1989-91, said in a statement. "This is a decision that’s not to be taken lightly. 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."
 
Vos said the issue hadn't yet been discussed in caucus, but that Republican lawmakers would "keep an open mind" through the budget process.
 
Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, said he welcomes the opportunity to give UW officials more flexibility, but added he's concerned with keeping college affordable for Wisconsin families.
 
"The goal is to increase the UW System’s flexibility, and increase the system’s ability to effectively use state resources," said Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, co-chairman of the Joint Finance Committee. "With prudent fiscal budgeting and common sense reforms, we will work to ensure that Wisconsin students will have greater accessibility to quality higher education at an affordable cost."
 
Rep. Dave Murphy, R-Greenville, said there are still questions and details to iron out, including whether $300 million is an appropriate amount to cut, but added he respects the "bold vision for the future" offered by Walker. 
 
Rep. Adam Neylon, R-Pewaukee, indicated his support for the proposal, suggesting the Board of Regents could create a new tuition category for international students. 
 
Neylon said those reforms would give the UW System the flexibility necessary to offset the cut in state aid.
 
But Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, was critical of a plan granting autonomy to the Board of Regents. Nass is vice-chair of the Senate Committee on Universities and Technical Colleges.
 
"I respect the Governor's duty to propose a budget. However, it's the Legislature's obligation to finalize a spending plan. 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. I don't trust the unelected Board of Regents to prioritize the plight of middle class families." 
 
Most Democrats denounced the proposal. Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said lawmakers in both parties should be concerned with what she dubbed an "attempt to privatize and defund our UW System."
 
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said there is "no doubt that the UW System’s ability to offer high-quality, affordable education will suffer."
 
“Gov. Walker decided to pay for his bad budgeting by gutting economic opportunity in Wisconsin. Shortsighted decisions and poor economic growth under Gov. Walker have Wisconsin moving backwards, as other states invest in their future,” said Rep. Gordon Hinz, D-Oshkosh, who serves on the state’s budget committee. "The UW-System is one of the largest job creation engines in the state. How is Wisconsin supposed to compete for the jobs of tomorrow with a slash and burn approach to education?"
 
Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, serves as the ranking Assembly Democrat on the budget committee. She dubbed Walker the "anti-education governor."
 
Assembly Assistant Minority Leader Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, said there is "nothing left to cut that will not severely compromise the quality of a UW education."
 
UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank told the Wisconsin State Journal that she expects layoffs "at every school and college."
 
"To get through the demanding times ahead, we know that we will be called on to make challenging and difficult decisions. It won’t be easy. Taking a longer view, our new relationship with the state will allow us to leverage the System’s great resources, talent, and ideas to even better serve the people and economy of Wisconsin," said UW System president Ray Cross in a statement.