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Walker surprises with call for UW tuition cut

Funding details lacking, lawmakers of both parties say

posted Jan. 11, 2017 12:00 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Eric Lindquist. bio | email

Gov. Scott Walker pledged Tuesday in his State of the State speech to cut tuition for all in-state undergraduate students at UW System campuses. 

The surprise move attracted a mixed reaction from Democratic and Republicans lawmakers alike from the Chippewa Valley.

Rep. Kathy Bernier, R-Lake Hallie, acknowledged she was startled when Walker mentioned that his 2017-19 state budget proposal would call for not just extending the tuition freeze that has been in effect for the past four years, but actually cutting tuition, to make higher education more affordable. Such a cut would be great for students, she said, but the proposal raises questions about the impact on UW System funding. 

“I thought, ‘Oh my goodness,’ ” said Bernier, who has indicated she supports the UW System’s request for a $42.5 million funding boost this biennium after sustaining a $250 million cut in the last budget. “We obviously can’t leave UW funding flat or even close to flat if that’s what he is proposing. So my assumption is that we’re going to add significantly more money to UW System and that will allow them to reduce tuition. But the devil is in the details.”

Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire, and Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, agreed their response would depend on the overall impact on UW System funding.

“In concept, sure it’s great to have a tuition cut because that means more kids can go to university, but we have to fund the cut or the UW System could face fiscal ruin,” Wachs said, noting that the state hasn’t provided more money to make up for revenue campuses lost from the tuition freeze. 

Walker’s spokesman Tom Evenson told The Associated Press the cut would be paid for in the budget. Walker plans to release his budget proposal next month.

Rep. Romaine Quinn, R-Chetek, said he wouldn’t commit to supporting the tuition cut before seeing the details, specifically the size of the cut and how it would be funded.

“I don’t know if that’s going to fly or not,” Quinn said. “If we pay for it, does that neuter our ability to pay for other programs that may be more necessary at this time than shaving off some tuition?”

Quinn added that he approaches the issues with some skepticism because he generally supports user fees to pay for programs and views tuition as essentially a user fee for people buying a service from the UW System. 

UW-Stout Chancellor Bob Meyer said in a statement he too is concerned about ensuring that everyone who wants a college education has the means to obtain one and is eager to see the details about the proposed tuition cut.

“I certainly hope, however, that the governor plans to both fully fund his plan to cut tuition and to restore at least part of the budget cut we received in 2015-17,” Meyer said. “We are still working our way through that cut, which amounted to $5.3 million a year, without reducing educational quality. It’s been a very challenging task.”

Meyer noted that lagging salaries for UW employees also are a critical need.

UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt released a statement emphasizing that the governor, Legislature, Board of Regents, business community and public have indicated in recent months that assuring both affordability and quality in the UW System is a priority.

“We remain committed to working with UW System and our legislators to assure a strong UW System that meets the educational needs of our region and our state,” Schmidt said.

Regarding the central theme of Walker’s optimistic speech — that Wisconsin is better off now than when he took office six years ago — legislators appeared split along partisan lines.

“I think we’re doing quite well in Wisconsin overall,” Bernier said. “I think it’s because we’ve had a lot of out-of-the-box thinking and innovative suggestions about how to make Wisconsin grow and flourish, and I think we’re doing an excellent job that way and I think our electors think so too.”

Sen. Terry Moulton, R-town of Seymour, said in a statement that he agrees the state is moving in the right direction.

“I share Gov. Walker’s pride in what we have been able to accomplish during our time in office, from holding down property taxes to their lowest levels since the end of World War II to lowering Wisconsin’s unemployment rate to the lowest level in 15 years,” Moulton said.

Wachs and Vinehout, meanwhile, said any economic gains over the past six years in Wisconsin are the result of improvements in the national economy, which was just emerging from the Great Recession and the financial crisis at the time Walker took office. Both Democrats stressed that Wisconsin has recovered jobs at a slower pace than the nation as a whole.

“I’m thinking (President Barack) Obama kind of dragged Wisconsin along despite the anchor Scott Walker provided,” Vinehout said.

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