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State delays UW project approvals (UPDATE)

UW System President Kevin Reilly responds to a question during a hearing before the state's Joint Committee on Employment Relations at the state Capitol in Madison on Tuesday. The university system has come under fire recently after a disclosure that revealed it finished the year that ended June 30 with a nearly $650 million surplus spread across multiple accounts. (AP Photo/Wisconsin State Journal, John Hart)

By Dan Shaw

The University of Wisconsin System’s hefty cash reserves worked against it Wednesday when the state Building Commission postponed approving several projects so it could decide how to split the cost.

Gov. Scott Walker, who is the commission’s chairman, said the month postponement was a “measured response” to revelations about the UW System’s budget. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau reported Friday that the system had about $648 million in cash reserves by June 30, the end of the past fiscal year.

Walker, who also has called for a university tuition freeze, said the delay will give lawmakers time to decide whether the UW System should pay more, and the state less, for the projects than currently proposed.

“That’s an option,” he said. “But that’s not necessarily a recommendation.”

David Miller, the system’s associate vice president of capital planning, said a one-month delay should have no effect on the projects that were up for approval Wednesday, noting that none of them was scheduled to be bid before May.

But he said he is concerned shifting more of the burden for university projects onto the UW system’s cash reserves could set a precedent. He declined to elaborate on what that precedent might be.

The proposals up for consideration Wednesday concerned equipment purchases and the maintenance and repair of buildings on the system’s various campuses. The total estimated cost for the projects was about $6.14 million, about $4.66 million of which was proposed to come from the state.

Of the remainder, $1.24 million was to come from the system’s cash reserves, some of that accrued through housing and student fees, and the rest from gifts and grants to the universities.

Of the projects up for consideration Wednesday, the only one approved was a $384,500 replacement of fire alarms at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire campus. State Rep. Dean Kaufert, R-Neenah, the commission who proposed the monthlong postponement, said it was important the fire alarm project be approved because it concerns safety.

All of the money for that project is to come out of the system’s cash reserves.

State Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, opposed the delay, saying members of the Building Commission should be concerned solely with considering proposed construction projects on their own merits. In approving a delay, he said, his fellow lawmakers were letting outside matters, such as concerns about the system’s budget, have too great an influence on their thinking.

“We shouldn’t be holding the capital budget hostage,” Risser said, “because of some dispute over another part of the budget.”

Kaufert said the building commission often has heeded requests to postpone a vote on a project, especially if doing so would not disrupt the project’s schedule. He said such delays usually are granted as a courtesy, especially if a commission member wants more time to do research on a particular proposal.

Kaufert said the vote to postpone several projects simply gives GOP leaders more time to consider whether the state should contribute more to a university system that already has ample cash reserves.

“With some of the recent things that have went on,” he said, “some on our side of the aisle would like to have a chance to look at the big picture.”

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