Student leaders at UW-Eau Claire and UW-Stout are giving a cool reception to a bill that would limit their ability to spend their own money.
The proposal, unveiled recently by state Rep. Dave Murphy, R-Greenville, and Sen. Andre Jacque, R-De Pere, would make it much more difficult to approve building projects paid for with student fees on UW System campuses.
The bill would stop student fee-funded campus building projects from advancing unless they are approved by a majority of all enrolled students in two consecutive referendums. Such fee increases now only need to be approved by a majority of students voting in one referendum.
“It’s kind of a way to take away our power. It would take away the voice of students,” said Charles Johnson, UW-Eau Claire student body president.
Johnson noted that one of the primary jobs of the Student Senate is to determine how student fees are used.
“I believe the bill will do more harm than good for future Stout students as they look to renovate buildings that will need to be renovated or constructed to fit the needs of future students,” said Deon Canon, president of the Stout Student Association.
But Murphy told the Leader-Telegram the bill, part of a package aimed at improving affordability at UW System campuses, was sparked by residents complaining about how rising segregated fees are driving up the cost of college despite a tuition freeze that has been in place since 2013.
The bill would “rein in skyrocketing UW fees,” Murphy and Jacque said in a news release.
While Murphy doesn’t object to fees being applied to day-to-day expenses that benefit students, such as free city bus passes, he questioned the appropriateness of using segregated fees to subsidize athletics programs and building projects.
“That’s where it gets a little dicey and rather unfair to some students,” he said. “That’s where fundraising should come in.”
Student fees have become an increasingly large part of the cost of attending the state’s public universities. At UW-Eau Claire, for instance, annual segregated fee amounts have climbed 13% from $1,180 in 2014-15 to $1,339 in 2019-20. Those fees range from roughly $1,000 to $1,600 at the state’s four-year campuses.
“College affordability is critical,” UW System spokesman Mark Pitsch said in a statement. “At the same time, we must ensure the value and quality of the educational experience is maintained for our students. Decisions about how students can spend their money should not be mandated by a one-size-fits-all approach that could lead to unintended consequences.”
Officials at UW-Eau Claire and UW-Stout declined to comment on the proposal, and Gov. Tony Evers’ office didn’t respond to an email asking if he would sign the bill into law.
The student leaders suggested the proposed drastic change in voting requirements would have the practical impact of eliminating almost any building project paid for by fees.
“The proposed bill may have good intentions, but the result will only hinder almost all of the building projects that students would like to do in the future,” Canon said.
Johnson agreed, saying the legislation would take away the opportunity for future student bodies to pursue a project such as the $48.8 million W.R. Davies Student Center, which opened in 2012 and is fully funded by student fees.
“Davies Center has a positive impact on almost every student at the university,” he said.
Roughly 27 percent of students voted in the most recent Student Senate elections, representing a fairly strong turnout for elections on UW campuses, Johnson said.
To meet the proposed standard for approving a fee increase, nearly twice that percentage of students would have to not just vote, but vote yes, in two consecutive referendums for a building project to move forward.
“We’ve never been able to do that, and I don’t see that happening,” Johnson said. “Getting that two years in a row, that just wouldn’t happen.”
Murphy acknowledged the bill would make it very difficult, though not impossible, for students to approve fee-funded building projects.
“That makes that bar very high,” Murphy said. “A proposal would have to be extremely popular.”
The bill also caps the share of student fees funding a building project to no more than 50%, so university leaders would have to secure state money or private donations for the rest, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
The result, he recognizes, could be UW campuses requesting more building projects be paid for by taxpayers and approved by the Legislature.
“I think that’s a more appropriate process for those things to be considered,” Murphy said.
Johnson, however, doesn’t appreciate legislators trying to limit students’ ability to control fees imposed on themselves, and said student governments across the state have expressed concern.
“We will make sure our voices will be heard in Madison,” Johnson pledged.