JFC cuts in half Evers funding increase for UW System

Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee voted Tuesday to add another two years to the freeze on tuition for in-state undergraduates at the UW System.

But they nixed Gov. Tony Evers’ plan to backfill that lost tuition revenue with an additional $50.4 million in state aid.

Overall, the GOP motion — approved 12-4 along party lines — would provide $69.7 million less in state aid that the $126.6 million the guv had proposed. Republicans also want to require the university to come back to the committee with a plan on how it would spend the bulk of the money Republicans want to allocate to UW before it would be released.

Dems slammed the GOP funding level as inadequate, particularly after cuts the system had to absorb over the past eight years with Republicans in control of the Legislature and guv’s office.

Sen. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee, noted her daughter will be a senior at UW-Milwaukee next year. She said while she appreciates efforts to keep tuition affordable, it needs to come with additional state aid.

“We don’t want a tuition freeze at the cost of a quality education,” she said.

Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, charged the increase Republicans were proposing wouldn’t be enough to cover the system’s inflationary costs. She said UW-Madison, the flagship campus, was in danger of slipping in national rankings and suggested the system could have to close some campuses.

The GOP motion would require the UW to return to the committee with a plan on how to spend $45 million of the funding increase before the money would be released.

JFC Co-chair John Nygren, R-Marinette, defended the GOP’s stewardship of UW, pointing out they approved moves such as requiring employees to pay more for their pension and health care costs. Combined, he said, it more than offset the $1 billion in cuts over the past eight years.

He also touted the committee’s approach to the bulk of the boost UW would receive.

“There will always be a desire from some to spend more,” Nygren said. “There will always be an opportunity for us to have those conversations. But first and foremost, we need to realize there are expectations that have to be built into any resources we provide from taxpayers.”

Republicans also pointed out the system has significant money in reserves and has seen tuition revenues increase thanks to increases on out-of-state and grad students. A recent Legislative Audit Bureau report found tuition revenues increased $382.6 million over a nine-year period. But it also came as the number of in-state students dropped by 12,881 students between 2008-09 and 2017-18.

Along with rejection the guv’s call to increase aid to offset the tuition freeze, the GOP motion would reject $45 million for student success and attainment — including expenses such as advising to help students graduate quicker — and $10 million to increase the number of nurse educators to help address the nursing shortage in Wisconsin.

JFC Republicans also rejected Evers’ call for an additional $5 million for UW Colleges to cover student support services such as advising and $3.5 million over the biennium to add 20 county-based agriculture positions at UW Extension schools. As of this month, there were 57.4 full-time equivalent agricultural educators working in 65 of the state’s 72 counties, according to LFB.

And the committee declined to approve Evers’ proposal to allow the university to reallocate money it receives for performance-based funding to create a supplemental pay plan.

UW System data shows it lags behind peers for faculty compensation. For example, UW-Madison faculty early 19 percent less than those at similar schools, using data adjusted for the cost of living, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

UW President Ray Cross slammed the GOP proposal as a missed opportunity, saying the university has regularly heard from Republican lawmakers that they want more of a focus on better preparing the state’s workforce for high-demand jobs.

He said at the same time, the system was accused by others of putting together its budget proposal based off GOP talking points to focus on workforce development.

Cross said he was told earlier this spring by Republicans that the budget proposal was reasonable only to have that change late last week, and he doesn’t know what prompted that. He said the GOP plan would mean the system wouldn’t be able to address wait lists for nursing classes or expand engineering programs, both areas of need.

“I’m frustrated,” Cross told reporters after the vote. “I feel like I’ve been kicked in the shins.”

Read the GOP motion.