By Graham Kilmer
The Joint Finance Committee (JFC) voted on Friday, May 29, making changes to Governor Walker’s budget provisions regarding the funding and structure of the UW-System, as well as the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
The changes, which were the result of two starkly partisan votes, reduce the governors proposed budget cut by $50 million, as well as delete the governor’s provision turning the UW-System into a public Authority.
The motion passed by JFC Republicans also eliminated from state law the protection of tenure for professors.
The motion proposing changes to the DNR called for the elimination of 28 positions within the department.
The Republican omnibus motion regarding the UW-System reduced the Governor’s $300 million proposed budget cut to $250 million – a reduction some lawmakers view as not enough. JFC member Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) called the results of the votes on Friday “horrible”.
“The UW-System returns $15 billion per year to the state economy,” said Taylor, “Cutting the UW-System by $250 million makes absolutely no sense.”
During the meeting on Friday, JFC vice-chair Luther Olsen (R-Ripon) admitted that the UW-System did not deserve the cuts, but argued that they were a budgetary reality for the state.
In light of the massive cut facing the UW-System and the end of the tuition freeze coming in 2017, Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) released a statement saying the JFC left the door wide open for skyrocketing tuition prices in 2017.
“We will take care of the billionaire owners of the Bucks,” said Nass, “But the middle class families of Wisconsin are once again left to be gashed by the UW-System in the near future.”
Some lawmakers are accusing the Governor and Republican legislators of supporting corporate interests in lieu of the UW-System, citing the billions more being spent in the latest Walker budget when compared to the last budget put forward by former Democratic Governor Jim Doyle.
“That’s billions worth of spending in corporate giveaways, and special interests that are a higher priority for Republicans than our public universities,” said Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Wausau).
The motion passed by JFC Republicans also contained a provision that removes the long-standing protection of tenure for university professors. Republican legislators argue that the move allows the UW Board of Regents to make the decision about tenure, and whether they will incorporate it into their board policy or not.
They also voted to make all members of faculty subject to layoffs regardless of status or tenure, if the Board of Regents determines the layoff necessary because of budgetary or program related reasons.
UW-System President Ray Cross and Board of Regents Vice President Regina Millner released a statement vowing to maintain tenure for the UW-System, regardless of its location in state statute or board policy.
“Our strong history of academic freedom through faculty tenure has protected education in the UW-System from political conflict and corruption for decades,” said Richard Leson, associate professor of art history at UW-Milwaukee and president of the Association of University of Wisconsin Professionals, AFT Local 3535.
The motion did, however, maintain the long-standing practice of shared governance in the UW-System.
In another motion passed on Friday, the JFC removed a provision in Governor Walker’s budget proposal eliminating the environmental stewardship program, used to fund land acquisitions and preservation.
The same motion also calls for the termination of 28 staff positions within the DNR, 18 scientists and 10 natural resource educators.
Sen. Lena Taylor pointed out that there are only 31 scientist positions in the DNR currently, and thus the provision eradicates 59 percent of the scientists currently on staff at the DNR.
“In Central Wisconsin, we have serious groundwater protection issues that will require the participation of skilled scientists to solve,” said Sen. Julie Lassa (D-Stevens Point), “[Friday]’s motion puts those positions in jeopardy.”
JFC member Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) fired back at Republican legislators during the meeting, alleging Republicans were eliminating the positions because of personal agendas that don’t align with the results of the scientist’s research.
“If we keep going down this road, people will be laughing at us,” said Erpenbach.