MADISON – The pressure on the University of Wisconsin to freeze tuition increased Wednesday, with Gov. Scott Walker planning to revise his budget to call for a freeze and Democrats joining with Republicans who control the Legislature to block any increase.
Walker’s request for a freeze — and possibly other UW budget changes — will be delivered to lawmakers in the next week to 10 days, his spokesman Tom Evenson said. The governor’s budget proposal revision comes in light of reports that UW has $650 million in reserves.
University leaders have been the target of blistering criticism from Republican lawmakers since the release of a memo by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau last week outlining the size of the reserve fund. GOP lawmakers questioned how the money could accumulate at the same time tuition went up 5.5 percent annually since the 2007-2008 academic year. Of the $650 million surplus, $414 million came from surplus tuition.
UW President Kevin Reilly has recommended a 2 percent tuition increase in each of the next two years.
Republicans have vowed instead to freeze tuition as they consider Walker’s budget plan over the coming weeks. Democratic legislative leaders joined them on Wednesday, sending a letter to Reilly and members of the Board of Regents calling for either a reduction in tuition or an increase in financial aid.
The letter from Assembly Democratic Minority Leader Peter Barca and Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson said they understood the system’s need to build reserves as state aid dwindles. But raising tuition in light of the surplus was unjustifiable and hurt struggling Wisconsin families, they said. A total of 35 Democratic legislators signed the letter.
UW spokesman David Giroux said in an email it was difficult to comment on what changes might be proposed for their budget, given that all the details haven’t been released.
“That said, the governor, the regents, and all legislators have a shared interest in holding down the cost of college,” Giroux said. “We’ll have to look carefully at the details, as they emerge, but we’re willing to work with state leaders on this.”
Evenson wouldn’t say whether Walker would reduce his proposed $181 million funding increase for UW, as some Republican lawmakers have called for. Nor would he speak about other possible changes the governor may seek.
Reilly defended the university during a tense Tuesday hearing before legislative leaders, saying the reserves were built up to protect the system as state funding dwindles. He also acknowledged that anger over the accumulated money was, in many ways, justified.
“We’re not angry,” Republican Senate President Mike Ellis said to Reilly. “We’re disgusted.”
The dispute over UW’s finances spilled over to the state Building Commission on Wednesday. The Republican-controlled commission voted to put on hold six UW building projects totaling $5.8 million out of concern about the cash reserve issue. It did approve a $384,500 project to update fire alarms on the UW-Eau Claire campus.
Rep. Dean Kaufert, vice chairman of the commission, said holding off on approving the projects for a month won’t delay any of the work. He said he didn’t want to hurt any of the projects but wanted more time to better understand the cash reserve issue.
“Let’s just take a month here, take a deep breath,” Kaufert said.
But Democratic commission member Sen. Fred Risser, of Madison, objected, saying the building projects shouldn’t be “held hostage” over a dispute with the university system on a different issue.
Walker, a member of the Building Commission, said he loved the UW System and was concerned over the reserve fund issue, but that he wants to make a “measured response.” He did not discuss his planned budget revisions during that meeting and did not take questions afterward.