Democrats Unveil Alternative to Republican Bill Package on UW Campuses

By: Kelly Meyerhofer 6/26/19 Wisconsin State Journal

Democratic lawmakers on Friday released a package of University of Wisconsin System bills that reflect many of the same priorities of campus leaders.

One bill seeks to “fully fund the tuition freeze,” which the new state budget extends for a seventh and eighth year, by giving the System $50 million over the next two years. The amount reflects what campuses would have received if they had been allowed to increase tuition by inflation over the next two years.

Another bill requires all future tuition freezes to be similarly funded.

A third bill establishes a bipartisan commission to facilitate a discussion about long-term goals of higher education in Wisconsin.

The “Reaching Higher for Higher Ed” package released Thursday is sponsored by Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, and Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, who both represent districts with UW campuses.

The bills offer a stark alternative to a series of proposals Rep. Dave Murphy, R-Greenville, announced earlier this week.

Included in Murphy’s proposals is a framework for a future thaw of the tuition freeze by limiting tuition increases to inflation and freezing rates for each incoming class. Another bill bans student fee-funded building projects from moving forward unless a majority of all enrolled students on campus approve the project in two consecutive referendums.

Both sets of bills face significant hurdles in becoming law under divided government.

With Republicans controlling the Legislature, it’s unclear if Shankland’s bills would make it to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ desk. And an Evers spokeswoman said earlier this week in response to Murphy’s bills that UW campuses need flexibility, which his bills do not appear to provide.

UW System spokesman Mark Pitsch declined to say earlier this week whether the System supported Murphy’s bills, but referenced “unintended consequences” on the measure altering the student-fee funding process. He said Friday that Shankland’s bills recognize how much UW campuses provide in return on investment.

Shankland said Murphy’s bill package presents “an outdated view” on UW System funding that doesn’t include solutions.

“The reason I introduced these (bills), people are going to talk about them and receive them well,” Shankland said in a call with reporters Friday. “I hope my Republican colleagues will, too, and I think public pressure might help.”

Shankland’s idea for a bipartisan group to set an agenda for the state’s university system is similar to one that began in 2017 for K-12 education. She said the Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding prompted a serious look at Wisconsin’s special education funding, which led to more money in the 2019-21 budget.

“It elevated conversation about the need to invest in a way that I hadn’t seen like that before,” she said.

Murphy said in an interview Friday that Shankland’s bills lacked a realistic price tag and he was OK with being called old-fashioned if it means the state having balanced budgets.

“Although ‘fund the freeze’ is a catchy slogan, it does not make sense in practice,” Murphy said. “One Legislature cannot bind a future Legislature to fund something in the budget, nor should it.”