Budget committee drops University of Wisconsin tuition cut, keeps freeze in place

By Nico Savidge, Wisconsin State Journal

Students in the University of Wisconsin System will not get the tuition cut Gov. Scott Walker proposed but will have flat tuition bills for the next two years under changes the state’s budget committee approved Thursday.

The Joint Finance Committee also trimmed the amount of new money that would be allocated to the System in the 2017-19 state budget by about $7 million compared to Walker’s proposal, and gave more power to the UW Board of Regents in deciding how to divide funding among campuses.

The committee took up the UW System’s budget Thursday after delaying a vote on it earlier this week because Republican lawmakers could not reach an agreement on the tuition cut.

The result is a spending plan that UW leaders applauded as a reinvestment in higher education and Republicans said provided greater accountability, but that Democrats said came nowhere near replacing money lost in years of state funding cuts and could instead weaken the System further.

“This is a good budget for UW, it’s a good budget for our economy, it’s a good budget for our students,” said Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield.

Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, disagreed, noting that the Republican changes did not provide any funding to offset the revenue UW institutions would lose by continuing the freeze that has been in place since 2013.

“This was your opportunity to fund the UW System and you did not take it — you failed,” Shankland told the committee’s Republican members, who passed the new budget provisions on a party-line vote. “This budget puts UW backwards again.”

Student savings eschewed

Walker’s budget called for keeping in-state undergraduate tuition in the UW System flat for the coming school year, then cutting it by 5 percent for the 2018-19 term, and providing $35 million to fund the reduction.

Such a change would have saved those students $464 per year at UW-Madison.

But key lawmakers balked at the proposal and its cost, leading to disagreements between members of the Senate and Assembly in the latest rift among the Republicans who control the Legislature and governor’s office.

Several senators wanted to keep the tuition cut in place, while Assembly members were adamant that any reduction was, according to finance committee co-chairman Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, a “no-go” in their house.

Walker signaled a retreat from the tuition cut idea prior to the committee’s vote Thursday.

“I would love to have a reduction; it’s what I proposed,” Walker told reporters in Neenah. “But having a freeze, I think, for the next two years would be a great victory.”

UW leaders and supporters had asked lawmakers to end the cap entirely, saying authority for setting tuition should rest with the System’s Board of Regents. Democrats argued UW institutions would have an estimated $50 million worth of additional revenue if tuition increased at the rate of inflation.

“Continuation of the tuition freeze becomes more detrimental each year,” said Matt Kussow, executive director of the pro-UW lobbying group Badger Advocates. “At some point lawmakers have to let the Board of Regents run the universities again.”

But while Nygren and other lawmakers indicated they were open to ending the freeze earlier this year, by this week he said both sides agreed there would be no tuition increase.

Most of the $35 million Walker earmarked for the tuition cut will instead go toward a $29.6 million package for UW employee pay raises, said Nygren and committee co-chairwoman Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills.