Budget committee freezes UW tuition, cuts state spending

The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee voted Thursday night to freeze undergraduate tuition, revoke compensation flexibilities and remove any new state funding for the UW System as a result of money found in reserve accounts.

In addition to the $65 million permanent budget lapse and tuition freeze recommended by Gov. Scott Walker in his recent budget letter, the JFC also deleted a provision that would have allowed UW System and UW-Madison control over employee compensation plans.

The committee also replaced $58 million in state funding for Wisconsin Higher Education Grants with UW reserves, though Democrats attempted to add money from UW’s reserves to those grants in order to free up waiting lists for financial aid and match inflation.

JFC followed Walker’s recommendation to keep incentive programs and funding for other programs such as the flexible option, but funded them with budget reserves rather than a combined $28.7 million in state money.

In total, the UW motion removed $183.8 million in spending compared to the original budget proposal, leaving UW with a slight cut compared to its current level.

The measure passed 14-2, with Senate Dem members Jennifer Shilling of La Crosse and Bob Wirch of Pleasant Prairie voting with Republicans, who hammered the UW over the reserves issue.

“Because of lack of forthrightness, because of a lack of honesty and openness, we find ourselves with an motion before us that is going to, one, establish a process where we have more oversight over the university,” said Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls.

Rep. Jon Richards, D-Milwaukee and one of the members to vote against the provision, urged members to consider the true needs of UW students.

“I think its important to ensure the quality of education, as angry as we are with them,” Richards said.

UW officials responded that while the system would use its balances to cover fixed costs, the JFC provision doesn’t include any additional financial aid and would leave the UW with a $61 million shortfall beginning in fiscal year 2016.

“We understand the concerns about UW’s cash balances, but we need to consider the long-term implications, and the hole we will face two years from now when revenues will not be there to support our core operations,” said Board of Regents President Brent Smith.

UW-Madison Chancellor David Ward said he was “disappointed that the Joint Finance Committee felt it needed to eliminate any new state funding in the upcoming biennium.”

See more on Thursday’s budget action in the WisPolitics Budget Blog: