Written by Nora Hertel, Daily Herald
WAUSAU — Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to cut $300 million from the University of Wisconsin System in the coming years has caused a stir in the higher education community and an indecisive response from legislators.
State lawmakers from central Wisconsin say they are investigating the idea, though they expressed concerns about the long-term effects of such a cut.
Walker's proposal includes two more years of frozen tuition, more autonomy for universities in the system and $150 million in cuts two years in a row. University officials say the changes will have a drastic impact on University of Wisconsin Marathon County and University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
Supporters and opponents of the proposal are not necessarily divided along party lines. Both state Sen. Jerry Petrowski, R-Stettin, and state Sen. Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Point, urge consideration of the unforeseen ramifications tied to the proposed changes.
"Personally, I think people need to educate themselves on the consequences of making such drastic cuts, and to think ahead to make sure that such decisions do not spark unintended consequences for not only our future generation, but our state as a whole," Petrowski wrote in an email Thursday.
Neither senator dismissed the idea.
"While I will be interested to see more details on Governor Walker's proposal for the UW System, I think we need to be extremely careful and deliberate in any changes that we make to our world-class university system," Lassa said in a statement dated Tuesday.
Both state senators agreed that the UW schools are economic drivers in their communities and the state.
Stevens Point Democrat Rep. Katrina Shankland has heard from constituents that worry the proposed changes will hurt UWSP students and employees as well as businesses that rely on the school as a source of workers.
"To them, it feels like the deal has been broken," Shankland said about parents who've contacted her. "That's the deal we've always had in our state — you pay taxes your whole life, you're able to send your kids to a first-class institution with affordable tuition."
UWSP would see $6 million to $7 million in cuts in the next two years — the biggest reductions in the university's 120-year history, said Bernie Patterson, chancellor.
"It will be impossible to absorb that by just cutting back," Patterson said. "This will be life-changing for some people."
Shankland would rather the state provide fewer tax breaks and receive a surge of federal Medicaid money by accepting Affordable Care Act provisions to balance the budget.
"The governor is not making the UW System his priority," she said.
But Walker already has taken a hard line on federal health reform and has given some tax breaks and promised more.
UW Marathon County Dean Keith Montgomery said the proposed cuts would set a precedent for future budgets.
"It's a new normal," Montgomery said. "You can't say that it's business as usual going forward with those cuts."
The state-funding cuts would come on the heels of other reductions.
"Over the past three years, we've cut approaching 25 positions," Montgomery said. "My fear is that the public thinks since the lights are still on … everything's fine."
In his announcement, Walker presented the change as something positive for state government and state universities.
"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," Walker said in a statement.