Once an enthusiastic builder, Gov. Scott Walker has taken in recent budgets to recommending that barely over a third of all projects requested by state agencies be added to official plans.
Much of the recent public debate in Wisconsin has been about what the governor’s new-found reluctance to borrow would mean for road projects. But there are big implications for vertical construction, as well.
Walker’s latest budget proposal, for instance, would reject about $1.33 billion worth of project requests submitted by state agencies — a little more than 62 percent of the total sought. Among the biggest projects that would be left by the wayside: a $42.66 million assisted-living center for Department of Corrections inmates, a $33.6 million project to add housing units to the Kettle Moraine Correctional Institution near Plymouth; a $30.8 million skilled-nursing center at a proposed Wisconsin Veterans Home in Madison, and a little more than $500 million worth of UW-system projects.
The refusals mark a sharp break from the willingness that Walker had shown in his first few years in office to go along with agencies’ plans. For the state’s 2011-13 budget, the first he oversaw as governor, Walker recommended approval for a little more than 77 percent of the nearly $1.32 billion worth of projects requested by state agencies. The next budget proposal was similarly generous; Walker recommended inclusion for about 73 percent of the more than $2.1 billion worth of projects requested.
The big change came in the debate over the current budget. Under pressure from his fellow Republicans to reduce the state’s reliance on borrowing, Walker recommended budgetary inclusion for only 36 percent of agencies’ $1.73 billion worth of requests. His proposal this year would continue down the same path, calling for inclusion for about 38 percent of agencies’ $2.13 billion worth of requests.
The UW-System has been hit particularly hard. Among the requested University of Wisconsin projects the governor rejected this year were a proposed $63.5 million expansion and renovation of the Haas Fine Arts Center at UW-Eau Claire, a nearly $55.2 million Sesquicentennial Hall to be built at UW-Platteville, a $35.9 million Phase 1 renovation of UW-Parkside’s Wyllie Hall, and a roughly $41.84 million student health and wellness center at UW-Stevens Point.
UW officials have also seen large requests for maintenance money turned down in recent years.
“We hope to work with the Governor and legislature in the months ahead to help ensure we have adequate and refurbished teaching and living space for our students,” she said in a statement.
A representative of the governor did not respond to requests for comment.
Signs that Walker’s enthusiasm for big construction projects might be waning first emerged publicly at a meeting of the state Building Commission held at the State Fair Grounds in August 2014. Officials within his administration at that time confirmed that planned dorm projects at the UW’s Whitewater and Eau Claire campuses would not be proceeding according to a published scheduled in part because of a need to “manage cash flow.”
Both of those projects are once again moving forward. Yet, even as the general size of the state’s capital budgets has shrunk, there have been other, more subtle signs that the governor’s enthusiasm for big projects is waning.
His first two capital budgets, for instance, contained passages extolling the stimulus that state building projects could provide to the general economy. Readers of the 2011-13 budget were assured that “each $100 million in spending adds $340 million to the state’s GDP and sustains 2,850 jobs.” Such statements of the “Economic Impact of State Building Program” have been absent from the latest two proposals, though.
At Building Commission meetings in his first few years in office, Walker could often be heard exhorting state officials to take advantage of historically low interest rates. Lately, though, when he and administrative officials have made historical comparisons, it has been to talk about their historically frugal capital budgets; Walker’s latest, if adopted by the Legislature without change, would be the smallest in 10 years.
Meanwhile, it’s not only that Walker has become more reluctant to let big building requests get into his budget proposals. Projects that were once included have been subsequently removed.
Perhaps the biggest example of this is the Wisconsin Historical Society’s long-planned new museum. Plans for a $75 million, 200,000-square-foot museum that would house collections now stored at both the historical society’s current museum and the state Veterans Museum, both in Madison, were added to the state’s 2011-13 budget.
Four years later, though, amid heightened scrutiny of the state’s debt burden, the project was “de-enumerated,” meaning taken out of the budget. Now it appears to be on an indefinite hiatus. It wasn’t even proposed for inclusion in the state’s next budget.
Kara O’Keefe, a spokeswoman for the historical society, said the new museum remains a top priority.
“We are continuing to discuss the project with the state to determine the best ways to move forward with this project,” she said in a statement. “The Society is also examining successful museum projects in other states as we consider our options for a new museum in Wisconsin.”
Other long-planned projects have had to take a backseat to repairs and renovations. Up for inclusion in the state’s current budget, for instance, was a $75 million, 150,000-square-foot Integrated Research Center at UW-Milwaukee’s Innovation Campus in Wauwatosa.
The project had once been deemed the “linchpin” of the Innovation Campus, a research park meant to bring together academics and private industry to develop new products and businesses. But now with the Integrated Research Center rejected from the current budget and not even up for inclusion in the next budget, officials at Innovation Campus have had to learn to make do with less.
David Gilbert, executive director of the Innovation Campus, said university officials did not even propose the project again this year because they believed other work should take a priority. And UW-Milwaukee officials’ hopes have not been completely disappointed. Included in the governor’s latest plans are $52.2 million for a renovation of UW-Milwaukee’s Northwest Quadrant and $33.5 million for the first phase of a renovation of the campus’s Sandburg Hall.
“If you are triaging the needs of UW-Milwaukee, the first thing you have to do make use of the property you have,” Gilbert said.
In the meantime, Gilbert said, he and others at the Innovation Campus have been able to use the park’s existing 24,000-square-foot UWM Innovation Accelerator building to support various start-up ventures. The addition of the 150,000-square-foot Integrated Research Center would merely allow them to do the same work on a larger scale.
“We are doing wonderful things with what we have,” Gilbert said. “When we finally do get that research center, that’s what’s going to propel them from great on a statewide basis to great on a global basis.”Follow @TDR_WLJDan