Budget panel rejects Walker tuition cut, maintains freeze

By Scott Bauer and Todd Richmond, Associated Press 

MADISON, Wis.  — The Legislature's budget-writing committee rejected Gov. Scott Walker's proposed University of Wisconsin System tuition cut Thursday, choosing instead to keep rates frozen for another two years.

The Joint Finance Committee also reduced the funding increase Walker proposed for UW from $42 million to about $36 million.

The budget committee is working to revise Walker's two-year spending plan before forwarding it on to the full Senate and Assembly for passage later this summer. The committee's actions are crucial, as neither chamber typically makes significant changes to the budget once it reaches them.

Walker tried to cast the defeat on the tuition cut as a win, saying that continuing the freeze would be a "great victory." But the changes led one Republican, Sen. Steve Nass, to say he's going to vote against the budget as it currently stands. Nass, who voted against Walker's budget in 2013, would vote against this one "depending on how other key pieces are resolved," said his spokesman Mike Mikalsen. Republicans can lose three votes in the Senate and still have enough to pass it.

"To me I would love to have a reduction, it's what I proposed," Walker said of the tuition cut. "But having a freeze over the next two years would be a great victory. ... Not for me, but most importantly for the students and families in the state who are paying for higher education."

Continuing the tuition freeze becomes more detrimental every year, said Matt Kussow, director of the Badger Advocates group that lobbies for the flagship Madison campus.

"At some point lawmakers have to let the Board of Regents run the universities again,'" Kussow said.

Tuition at UW has been frozen for in-state undergraduates for four years. Walker's budget called for extending the freeze through 2017-18 and reducing tuition by 5 percent in 2018-19.

The governor's budget would have given the system $35 million to backfill the revenue lost from the tuition cut. Instead, the budget committee planned to approve $26.3 million in performance-based aid, another $5 million for high-demand programs and another $4.9 million in aid for a total of $36.2 million in new dollars.

Walker had asked for $42.5 million in additional funding for UW, with all of it tied to hitting performance targets.

Committee Democrats blasted Republicans for cutting $250 million from the system in the last state budget and not giving the system more new dollars.

"This is your opportunity to fund the UW System and you failed," Democratic Rep. Katrina Shankland said.

The Republicans, though, praised themselves for freezing tuition again, saying the move will help families. The committee ultimately approved the freeze and the new aid on a 12-4 party-line vote.

"We are making an important, valuable investment where it should be made," Republican Sen. Sheila Harsdorf said.

UW President Ray Cross issued a news release thanking the Republicans for "their commitment to working with us throughout the budget process."

Earlier Thursday, Walker held a news conference at the highways 10/441 expansion and reconstruction project in Neenah to stress the urgent need to reach a road-funding agreement before the current budget year ends on June 30. He and Republican legislative leaders are at odds over the best plan.

"Our message is simple: Get it done," Walker said.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling rejected Walker's call for action.

"Gov. Walker has had six years to 'get it done,'" she said on Twitter. "Instead of delivering a long-term funding solution, he chose more tax breaks for the rich."

The Republican governor wants to delay some major road projects while borrowing $500 million. Republicans who control the Senate and Assembly don't want to borrow that much but are hung up on alternatives. Walker reiterated his opposition to raising gas taxes or vehicle registration fees like Assembly Republicans are pushing, which would essentially have those who use the roads pay to improve them, but he's been open to other suggestions.

Walker also repeated his opposition to breaking off transportation funding from the rest of the state budget, which could delay reaching a deal for months.