UW System funding, prison oversight, Milwaukee schools lead Capitol ‘to do’ list – Isthmus

Three major controversies — prisons and their oversight, whether to give the UW System $800 million more in state aid, and how Capitol officials will again try to reform Milwaukee Public Schools — have quickly emerged as issues for both legislative campaigns and next year’s state budget debate.

Those three are now among the most expensive state government programs, making up 14% of all state general-fund spending this year.

How the Legislature responds to these controversies — and the deadlock between Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Republicans over how to spend $125 million set aside last year to fight widespread water contamination by PFA chemicals — depends on whether Republicans, who have controlled the Legislature for 13 years, retain that power after Nov. 5 elections.

Of those three programs, the state Department of Corrections, which runs prisons and probation and parole programs, costs the most — $1.36 billion in the budget year that ends June 30.

But felony criminal charges filed against nine Waupun prison employees, including the now-retired warden, inmate deaths, and a pending federal investigation have Republicans threatening new oversight over how Evers appointees have run DOC.

Republicans have ignored calls by Evers for major criminal justice reforms. But Evers has refused Republicans’ pleas to tear down the problem-plagued Green Bay maximum security prison and replace it with a new Brown County prison. 

Now, two Assembly Republican leaders, both of whom are up for re-election in November, said in a joint statement that they are serious about more legislative oversight.

“There must be stronger accountability to ensure facilities are complying with the law and that the constitutional rights of those incarcerated are upheld,” said Reps. Mark Born, co-chair of the Legislature’s Finance Committee, and Michael Schraa, Assembly Corrections Committee chair. Their districts include several prisons.

Born and Schraa blamed the Evers administration for “pervasive problems” and added, “Deaths — and the issues that have caused an ongoing federal investigation into Waupun — call for better accountability in our state prison system, similar to the statutorily required oversight that occurs in our county jails.”

DOC went months without a secretary until Evers promoted Deputy Secretary Jared Hoy to the top job on May 24.

The UW System will get $1.22 billion in state tax funds this year. Evers promised that he will push for the System to get $800 million more by mid-2027 — a 65% funding increase — to stop campus closures, systemwide layoffs and the elimination of programs. State government provides 18% of all UW System spending.

As superintendent of public instruction for 10 years, Evers served on the Board of Regents that governs the UW System. At a Regents meeting last week, he told the Board that “UW has a long, historic tradition of solving complex problems, marshaling world-class research to inform better governance, and being a laboratory for innovation that has saved and changed lives here in Wisconsin and across the world.” But, he added, “What we’re seeing is a decade-long war on one of our state’s most prized institutions. We’ve also seen how the UW System has increasingly been used as a political punching bag.”

When he submits his proposed 2025-27 budget to the Legislature early next year, Evers promised that it will include a $400 million annual increase for the UW System.. 

How that request is received will — just like the prison system controversy — depend on which party controls the Legislature.

Legislators and governors of both parties have been debating how to reform MPS for decades. The district had 68,700 students in the school year that just ended — about one in 12 of all public school students statewide — and got $636.4 million in state aid.

But, in the state Department of Public Instruction’s most recent report card, 48% of MPS schools either “failed to meet expectations” or “met few expectations” during the 2022-23 school year. Only 32% of MPS students met English language arts goals and 23% met math goals — far below the statewide averages of 60% and 57%, respectively.

The latest MPS controversy, which led to the resignation of Superintendent Keith Posley, resulted from the district’s failure to file financial reports required to get that $636.4 million in state aid. The Department of Public Instruction threatened to withhold aid payments until the reports were filed.

Responding, Evers promised to find “outside, independent auditors” to file two reports on “the instruction of our kids and support for [MPS] educators.”

Those audits could become public next year about the time the governor and legislators are haggling over the next state budget.

Steven Walters started covering the Capitol in 1988. Contact him at

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