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Local UW leaders praise Walker's funding plan

Governor touts $100 million funding boost, 5 percent tuition cut proposal in visit to UW-Eau Claire

posted Feb. 8, 2017 12:03 a.m. | updated Feb. 8, 2017 12:03 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Lauren French

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Gov. Scott Walker’s two-year state budget would restore more than $100 million to the UW System and cut in-state undergraduate tuition by 5 percent, he said Tuesday at UW-Eau Claire.

“I am down with that,” said freshman Caitlin Marks of Madison, eating lunch Tuesday afternoon at Davies Center.

Walker’s proposal comes after the 2015-17 budget cut $250 million from the UW System. His ideas for the next biennium also include letting students opt out of some segregated fees, requiring system institutions to provide three-year degree options and distributing some funds based on university performance. Walker will formally propose the budget at 4 p.m. today in an address to the Legislature.

Marks’ enthusiasm for the tuition cut echoes feelings about the proposal among area UW System leaders, who say they’re grateful for funding in the wake of a 12-year stint of budget cuts and tuition freezes.

“This is a breath of fresh air,” UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt said. “This gives us new hope. We know the state has been through some difficult economic times in the past several decades, and I think what we heard from the governor is very clear: that he is reinvesting in the Wisconsin Idea.”

The moves mark an about-face for Walker, who along with fellow Republicans who control the Legislature pushed through the $250 million cut and extended a tuition freeze for another two years. But Walker is expected to run for a third term next year, and bolstering UW funding and cutting tuition could play well with students and their families on the campaign trail.

If approved by the Legislature, the 5 percent tuition cut would go into effect the second year of the 2017-19 budget. Walker said the state would reimburse schools for the cut with general purpose revenue in addition to the more than $100 million boost in funding. According to a release from the governor’s office, the tuition cut would save students an average of about $360 a year.

But Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said Monday that there is little enthusiasm in the Legislature for an across-the-board tuition cut, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, also has expressed doubts about the plan.

Walker, who also had scheduled stops Tuesday at UW-La Crosse and UW-Green Bay to tout his university funding plan, suggested that adding funding to the UW System stems from the effect it will have on the workforce.

“As a parent, I know it’s a moral imperative that our students have access to a great education,” Walker said. “As a governor talking to employers, I know it’s really increasingly an economic imperative.”

About $42.5 million of the proposed $100 million increase would be tied to performance and distributed among universities based on rankings related to improving affordability, enhancing work readiness, ensuring student success in the workforce and administrative efficiency, according to a news release from the governor’s office. 

UW-Stout Chancellor Bob Meyer welcomes the idea. He was president of Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College when Walker installed the program at technical colleges, and it was effective, Meyer said. He does expect some challenges at first, if performance-based funding is approved in the budget.

“It’s going to be complicated because this is a system that has many different campuses with many different missions,” Meyer said.

For students like Marks, Walker’s idea to let students opt out of segregated fees is a mixed bag. The biochemistry student said she’s happy to pay less for the fees, but feels like they’re overall important to the university.

“I feel like that money is good for promoting a community, especially for freshmen who don’t know anybody,” Marks said. “If there isn’t as much money allocated to different groups, there wouldn’t be as many and people couldn’t find where they fit in.”

While education leaders are grateful for Walker’s proposal, a local lawmaker was slow to throw out praise, pointing out that large budget cuts are still fresh wounds for some.

State Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire, criticized Walker for his higher education funding cuts that came at a time when private industry was calling for more investment in postsecondary education.

“I think it’s an improvement obviously,” Wachs said, “although it’s kind of ironic that now we’re praising someone for putting money back into something that he was instrumental in stripping money out of in the very recent past.”

Contact: 715-830-5828, lauren.french@ecpc.com, @LaurenKFrench on Twitter. The Associated Press contributed to this report.