MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Scott Walker said Tuesday his new executive budget would cut University of Wisconsin System tuition by 5 percent, allow students to opt out of some fees and restore millions of dollars cut from the system two years ago.
The moves mark an about-face for Walker, who along with fellow Republicans who control the Legislature has been using the UW System as political punching bag for years. The 2015-17 budget cut $250 million from the system and extended a tuition freeze for another two years.
But Walker is expected to run for a third term next year and bolstering UW funding and cutting tuition figure to play well with students and their families on the campaign trail.
"Our investment today ensures student success by making college even more affordable, providing greater opportunities for students to earn their degree, and helping to bridge the gap between higher education and our workforce," Walker said in a news release.
State Rep. Cory Mason, a Racine Democrat, said the proposals look designed to help Walker campaign.
"You can sort of tell we're going into an election season," Mason said. "He's now coming back and saying, 'I know I broke this thing and now I'm here to help fix it.'"
The governor is set to unveil his entire 2017-19 executive budget on Wednesday. He released snippets of his plans for the UW System on Tuesday.
His budget would continue the tuition freeze for another year and apply the 5 percent cut in the budget's second year. The governor's office said in a news release the cut would save students an average of $360 a year. Walker would backfill the lost revenue with a $35 million grant for the system.
The governor's budget calls, too, for allowing students to opt out of paying fees that support student activities and organizations. Walker said in a news release the move will give students a say in what they want to support. Students would still be on the hook for fees that support university commitments and operational costs, however.
The system also would receive $104 million in new state aid. About $42.5 million of that would be contingent on meeting performance standards that Walker's office described in the news release as improving affordability, enhancing work readiness, ensuring student success in the workforce, administrative efficiency and two other criteria the Board of Regents will develop. Each institution will be required to publish a performance report card.
The system would get $11.6 million to bolster employee compensation; system leaders have long complained they can't afford to pay star faculty enough to keep them from jumping to other states.
Walker's budget also would require regents to track professors and academic staff's teaching workloads and reward instructors who teach beyond the standard load. Dave Vanness, president of UW-Madison's American Association of University Professors chapter, tweeted Tuesday that the requirement would create costly administrative layers and much of faculty's work goes on outside class.
UW System President Ray Cross issued a two-paragraph statement thanking Walker for recognizing the system plays a key role in Wisconsin's economy and workforce and saying the budget reflects the system's priorities. Regents President Regina Millner said in her own statement that she appreciates the governor's investment.
Republican legislators have given the tuition cut a cool reception. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has said he would rather increase financial aid, a position his spokeswoman reiterated Tuesday. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said Monday that he didn't sense a demand for a tuition cut. His spokeswoman, Myranda Tanck, didn't immediately respond to an email Tuesday.
Associated Students of Madison, UW-Madison's student government arm, issued a statement praising the additional state aid, saying it gives the system a chance to move beyond past budget cuts.
But the organization lamented the fee opt-out provision. ASM divvies fees to a number of campus organization and uses fee revenue itself to buy student bus passes, bring events to campus and fund a rape crisis center. Colin Barushok, chairman of AMS's Student Services Finance Committee, called the opt-out an attempt to undermine students' authority to distribute their own fees and warned if funding for bus passes dwindle students could struggle to get to class.
It's unclear how many of Walker's proposals will find their way into the final state budget, especially without Vos and Fitzgerald's backing. The Legislature's finance committee will spend months revising the plan before the Assembly and Senate take final votes. Vos and Fitzgerald's appointees control the panel.
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