Chancellors back proposed spending boost for UW System

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The Leader-Telegram, Eau Claire, Wis.
·4 min read
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Feb. 17—MADISON — Gov. Tony Evers called for a major spending boost in public higher education in Tuesday's budget address, doubling the UW System's own request in a proposal that would be the system's largest state funding increase in at least two decades.

The Democratic governor wants $190 million in additional state money for the public university system over the next two fiscal years. That's twice as much as what the system asked for and roughly $40 million more than what Evers requested for UW campuses in his previous budget.

The large price tag will almost certainly be significantly pared down by the Republican-controlled Legislature. In the last budget, the Legislature approved a $58 million increase for the system, an amount that university officials said fell short of even covering inflation.

Evers' proposal received a warm reception, however, from leaders at UW-Eau Claire and UW-Stout in Menomonie.

UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt said in a blog post that he was pleased by the ambitious investments in the system proposed by the governor. While Schmidt acknowledged the process has a long way to go before the 2021-23 budget is signed into law, he suggested many of the initiatives are well-positioned to receive bipartisan support.

"My sincere thanks to Gov. Evers for laying out this vision for UW System investment that aligns our mission with the state's most pressing needs," Schmidt wrote. "His executive budget proposes investment in high-impact strategies to support students from underrepresented populations, retention of stellar faculty and staff and maximizing the UW System's statewide benefit. It's clear that the governor shares our view of the university as an engine for economic growth and community resilience that provides an incredible return on the state's investment."

UW-Stout Chancellor Katherine Frank said she appreciates the recognition in Evers' budget proposal that continuing to provide a quality education requires additional investment by the state.

"As (UW System President Tommy) Thompson said in his statement Tuesday night, the UW wants to be a partner in helping the state solve its problems," Frank said. "We look forward to working with our legislative delegation to ensure the 2021-23 state budget gives us the tools we need to help move Wisconsin forward."

There is at least one measure in the governor's proposal for the system the GOP is likely to embrace. The governor wants to extend the in-state undergraduate tuition freeze for another two school years. In place since 2013, the freeze has broad bipartisan appeal and will likely pass again.

Evers' proposal, however, supplies the system with about $50 million to offset revenue it would have received from tuition increases. Republicans have generally resisted that approach, sometimes referred to as "funding the freeze," and instead encouraged the system to reduce expenses.

University leaders and system supporters, including Evers, have argued such a strategy isn't sustainable and threatens educational quality.

"We can't keep doing things the way we've always done them if we want to bounce back and (be) better than we were before this pandemic hit," Evers said during his budget address. "That's why our Badger Bounceback agenda is about investing in people, not prisons."

Under Evers' budget, by the end of the 2021-23 biennium, he said the state would spend more money on the system than the Department of Corrections. It would also help campuses recover from the financial crisis caused by COVID-19.

The governor wants to give the UW Board of Regents authority to borrow money, something the system has long wanted and which is available to most of its peer institutions around the country. Many schools over the past year have borrowed to weather short-term budget shortfalls caused by COVID-19.

Republican leaders haven't said whether they support giving the system borrowing authority.

Evers also proposed spending nearly $40 million to expand a UW-Madison tuition scholarship program to all UW campuses. Known at the flagship university as "Bucky's Tuition Promise," the program provides essentially a full-tuition scholarship to all in-state freshmen and transfer students whose families annually earn $60,000 or less.