MADISON — University of Wisconsin leaders pressed Republican lawmakers Tuesday to approve spending $1.1 billion to repair and renovate buildings across the system, warning that they can't continue to attract the talent employers need without modern facilities.
System President Ray Cross told reporters during a news conference in an aging UW-Madison lecture hall that 60 percent of the system's buildings are between 45 and 70 years old and desperately need upgrades.
"Right now employers are screaming at us, saying you need to create more graduates, develop more talent. Students and employers expect modern learning environments," Cross said. "These buildings are all decaying. They're all coming to the ends of their natural lives."
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' capital budget proposal calls for spending $2.5 billion on construction projects around Wisconsin. UW System officials had asked him for $1.9 billion for upgrades, repairs and renovations. The governor set out $1.1 billion for the system, including $38 million in borrowing to upgrade classroom technology; $77.6 million to renovate Camp Randall Stadium; $48 million to upgrade the Kohl Center; $40 million to renovate UW-Milwaukee's student union; $83 million for a new science building at UW-La Crosse; and $6.7 million to renovate UW-Parkside's fire alarms.
Republicans on the state Building Commission rejected the entire capital budget in March and sent the spending plan on to the Legislature's finance committee without an endorsement, an unprecedented move that underscored the divide between Evers and the GOP. Typically the commission makes a bipartisan recommendation based on the governor's proposal and the finance committee goes along with the bulk of the request.
Republicans control the committee and last week voted to give the system only about half of the $127 million in additional state aid Evers had proposed. Cross called the vote a "kick in the shins."
The committee is expected to take up the capital budget perhaps as early as next week. Kit Beyer, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, said Tuesday that Vos, a former student regent, understands the importance of investing in UW.
"He's hopeful that legislators can find a way to fund many of the UW's capital projects," Beyer said.
Alec Zimmerman, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, didn't immediately respond to an email.
Cross and UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank held their news conference in UW-Madison's 116-year-old Agricultural Hall. They addressed reporters in a lecture hall with wooden floors worn smooth and hundreds of battered wooden chairs. Blank said the HVAC system doesn't work in the room and students don't have room for their laptops and notebooks.
Blank argued that Evers' budget calls for funding most of UW-Madison's projects with donations and borrowing supported by funds generated by activities associated with the projects, such as ticket sales, rather than general tax dollars.
"We're not asking the state to fund them," she said.
The capital budget includes $3.1 million to renovate the lecture hall where Cross and Blank spoke. The money would come from borrowing supported by tax dollars.
Asked whether he's gotten any commitments from Republican lawmakers, Cross said only that "they understand our needs." He said the finance committee's decision to reduce state aid for the system still stings.
"I think my shins will heal, but I also know they'll remain sore," he said. "But these buildings won't heal themselves. This is where the investment needs to be made in the University of Wisconsin."