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WisDems: ICYMI: Blame Wisconsin Republicans for UW’s financial crisis

MADISON, Wis. — A new column by Dave Zweifel in the Cap Times condemned Republicans for the current state of the Universities of Wisconsin’s ongoing financial crisis. For decades, Republican lawmakers have underinvested in UW, resulting in campus closures, staff layoffs, and cuts to academic programs. Now, Governor Evers is working to clean up Republicans’ mess and restore Wisconsin’s higher education system through a record $800 million budget proposal.

The Cap Times, Opinion: Blame Wisconsin Republicans for UW’s financial crisis
By: Dave Zweifel

A little over ten years ago, the fiscal Republican geniuses running the Wisconsin Legislature decided it was outrageous for the University of Wisconsin System to be sitting on a budget surplus.

Bolstered by their soulmate Gov. Scott Walker, those Republicans immediately set out to ensure the system’s campuses spent down their surpluses, though many UW officials argued they were necessary to prepare for a rainy day.

Well, as the old Frank Sinatra song laments, here’s that rainy day. Sinatra was rhapsodizing that he should have saved those leftover dreams. But the UW is now wishing it had those leftover dollars as several of its campuses are now in a financial hole. They’re closing two-year schools, cutting classes, downsizing faculty and worrying about what the future holds.

This, unfortunately, is what happens when governmental funding succumbs to elected officials who use those funds as political tools for short-term gain.

It’s happened time and again in Wisconsin. Back in 1978, a flamboyant educator named Lee Sherman Dreyfus used a state budget surplus to get himself elected as governor. He promised to give everyone a $200 tax rebate.

Sure enough, the economy had soured four years later. And Wisconsin, under a new governor since Republican Dreyfus decided not to run again, had to raise taxes to fill the deficit.

The same thing happened a few years later when the GOP’s Tommy Thompson decided a budget surplus merited a rebate, only to face a new deficit that required more state revenue from whipsawed taxpayers.

But this current UW crisis is much more egregious. One could argue that the tax rebates engineered by previous Republicans weren’t malicious actions, but just a short-term political gambit while conveniently ignoring the realities of the boom and bust cycles of the U.S. economy.

All politicians know that good times are often followed by bad, but why not take advantage of the boom when it can garner lots of votes and let someone else worry about the bust?

The assault on the UW budget, though, was mean-spirited and aimed at punishing the highly regarded system for all sorts of perceived sins: too many liberal professors, alleged canceling of conservative voices at school functions, supposed coddling of student activists, and worst of all, promoting diversity, equity and inclusion programs aimed at recruiting and retaining faculty and students of color.

UW’s critics were among the most outspoken in the Legislature’s Republican caucuses. The outspoken long-time UW critic Steve Nass was chair of the Assembly’s education committee at the time. He salivated over the disclosure that the system was running a surplus. The speaker Robin Vos feigned outrage and the then-Senate Majority Leader demanded that heads should roll.

In the end, the GOP used the budget process to freeze tuition. To limit tuition increases during a time of surpluses was a no-brainer, they said, and they kept it up for eight years.

Putting a freeze on university tuition isn’t necessarily a bad idea, particularly when the cost of higher education is soaring. But state governments typically offset the loss of tuition revenue with increases in state support. 

Instead, Wisconsin didn’t increase that support and now, astonishingly, state government funding for its higher education system ranks No. 42 in the nation. Even Mississippi spends more.

When the UW System was created in 1974, merging the Madison campus and its branches in Milwaukee, Green Bay and Parkside with the state’s college campuses, the state provided 43% of the system’s revenues. Today, state support has dropped below a paltry 14%.

It’s little wonder that UW-Oshkosh is now deep in debt and needs to borrow money, or that six other campuses must either cut more or find other means to balance their budgets. It would take about $440 million to bring the state to the median level of funding. Yet no one among the state’s GOP leaders seems concerned.

“Republican lawmakers have spent more than a decade waging war on public education in Wisconsin, including our UW System and higher education institutions,” Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has commented. “(They) have consistently refused to make the necessary, meaningful investments our state and our campuses desperately need to compete and that our students deserve.”

He’s pledged to propose a record $800 million hike in UW funding in the next two-year budget he sends to the Legislature.

State Sen. Kelda Roys, D-Madison, told the Badger Herald student newspaper that “it’s important to say that the tuition freeze was unfunded. So it was just another way to essentially cut funding to the universities under the guise of doing something that was politically popular.”

Thankfully, UW-Madison has been able to escape the fiscal crisis — so far. That’s reassuring, and if Evers can convince the Legislature that it needs to quit starving our gem of an educational system there may be hope for the future.

If not, this batch of Wisconsin Republicans will go down in history as the ones who took a world-class system that has long made Wisconsin proud and turned it into a struggling mediocre institution of higher learning.

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