Budget committee demands assurances of no UW tuition surge

March 4, 2015

MADISON Republicans on the Legislature's finance committee demanded assurances Tuesday from University of Wisconsin System officials that they won't dramatically increase tuition if they're uncoupled from state oversight under Gov. Scott Walker's budget plan.

Walker's budget proposal would cut $300 million from the system over the next two years and keep a current tuition freeze in place over that period. In exchange, the governor would free the system from state oversight and give its leaders the autonomy they've been seeking for years. Future state funding would come through a block grant fueled by sales tax revenue, with annual increases tied to inflation. Right now, state aid for the system comes from a combination of different taxes.

Critics have warned that system leaders could use that new autonomy to dramatically increase tuition when the freeze ends in 2017. Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee peppered system President Ray Cross on how he would ensure that wouldn't happen.

"We don't want to see skyrocketing tuition under the flexibilities," Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-Hudson, warned Cross at the hearing.

Cross insisted that a dedicated funding source could create more certainty for long-range financial planning, in turn helping stabilize tuition. He stressed that raising tuition dramatically could anger lawmakers into revoking the system's flexibility.

"The question is can you trust us?" Cross said. "We'll only know if you give us that opportunity. We will try to do our best and expect to be held accountable."

Cross also asked the committee to reduce the $300 million cut, calling the reduction "serious." UW-Eau Claire Chancellor Jim Schmidt, who accompanied Cross to the hearing, said the Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates his campus will lose $7.6 million. He told the committee that he's asked every division on his campus to identify ways to cut as much as 20 percent and has formed task forces to look at consolidating student services, streamlining administrative functions and reworking the curriculum to make it more attractive to students.

Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, took issue with Schmidt reciting the $7.6 million cut as a done deal, pointing out the system could find savings to pass on to the campuses and the committee hasn't even started revising the budget yet.

The committee has been listening to state agency leaders about how Walker's budget would affect them since Monday. They're expected to wrap up the hearings on Wednesday and then hold a number of public hearings around the state. The panel will return to Madison and begin revising the spending plan before shipping it to the full Assembly and Senate for votes later this spring.

The budget will then go back to Walker, who can use his partial veto power to rewrite the final document to his liking.