Budget panel delays votes on UW tuition cut, funding

By TODD RICHMOND, Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Legislature's powerful finance committee postponed votes Tuesday on the University of Wisconsin System's budget until later this week as Republican lawmakers quarreled behind closed doors over whether to adopt Gov. Scott Walker's plan to reduce tuition.

The two-year budget Walker submitted to the Legislature calls for extending a four-year-long freeze on resident tuition rates for another year and cutting tuition by 5 percent in 2018-19, which would save students $240 to $464, depending on which school they attend. The budget would supply the system with $35 million to offset the lost revenue.

The proposal comes as Walker, a Republican, prepares to run for a third term next year and looks to curry favor with students and their parents.

The GOP controls both the Assembly and Senate, which would seem to clear the way for fairly easy budget revisions. But Walker's fellow Republicans have greeted a number of his proposals with skepticism.

Some Republicans have complained that the state shouldn't pour tax dollars into balancing the UW's lost revenue. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau has estimated backfilling the reduction would actually cost $42 million, not $35 million. Other Republicans have proposed allowing individual campuses or programs within those institutions to raise tuition to match inflation or the latest increase in median household income, whichever is less. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has said he would rather increase financial aid than tuition.

The Joint Finance Committee, which revises Walker's budget before forwarding it on to the full Legislature for votes, was scheduled to vote on the UW portions of the budget on Tuesday. Moments before the panel was set to meet, co-chairs Rep. John Nygren and Sen. Alberta Darling told reporters they had decided to postpone the votes indefinitely.

Nygren said Assembly Republicans support continuing the freeze and using the $35 million Walker allocated to cover lost revenue for other purposes. He didn't say for what, though.

"We don't want to further subsidize tuition," Nygren said.

Darling, however, said Senate Republicans were still debating what to do about tuition.

"We need the opportunity to have a consensus opinion and when you have a diverse Senate, which we do," Darling said. "We just are not in the position to make a decision on the tuition cut. That will happen soon and I think everybody respects that."

Nygren said he was frustrated that the GOP couldn't agree and that the impasse could delay the final budget. He said "a few people" were being allowed to "railroad the process." He didn't say who but encouraged Senate Republicans to talk to one another.

Sen. Steve Nass, a Republican from Whitewater who has been a fierce critic of the UW System, issued a news release pledging to stand by Walker and push for the tuition reduction to protect the middle class.

"It has never been a Republican principle to raise taxes or increase tuition on families just because bureaucrats and special interests are demanding it," Nass wrote.

Darling did say that the system won't see any cuts. Republicans slashed $250 million from the system in the last state budget. Walker's budget includes $42.5 million in new state aid, although that money would be tied to new performance standards. Campuses that score better on a lengthy list of metrics, including affordability, time to degree and the number of students who got internships, would get bigger chunks of the money.

Darling said Senate Republicans were set to discuss the UW budget again next week. As to when they might reach agreement on tuition: "That's a very, very good question," she said.

The committee then convened and spent four hours voting on other parts of Walker's budget. At the conclusion of the session Darling told reporters that she expects the committee to take up the UW budget on Thursday. She said Republicans had made "progress" on reaching a unified position but declined to elaborate.

The UW stalemate isn't the only hurdle Republicans face as they finish work on the budget. The GOP is at an impasse on how to pay for road repairs, a far bigger issue than UW tuition that threatens to shut down budget work, perhaps for months.

The state's roads fund faces a $1 billion shortfall. Walker's budget fills it by borrowing $500 million and delaying work on major projects; Assembly Republicans have put forward a complex plan that includes charging sales tax on gas but puts off decisions on which road projects to prioritize.

Walker has said he can't support the plan because it amounts to a $433 million tax increase over the next two fiscal years.

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