By Todd Richmond
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — University of Wisconsin System leaders plan to ask Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators to put $454.6 million in the state’s next budget for building maintenance, renovation and construction.
About $100 million of that would go toward maintenance. A new mechanical engineering building at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville would be the only new structure; the rest of the money would go toward renovations. Ray Cross, president of the UW System, says the state’s current budget authorized $86 million worth of new borrowing for buildings.
Word of the proposed request for building projects came at the same time that UW officials announced plans to ask the governor and lawmakers to lift a tuition freeze and give the system about $40 million in new dollars in the next state budget.
The Board of Regents is expected to approve the request at a meeting this month. Cross gave reporters a preview of the request that asks Walker to allow the regents to set tuition and calls for an additional $42.5 million in state aid. Cross said the new money would be used to shorten the time students take to graduate, expand programs that offer high-school students college credits for completing certain courses and strengthen student internship programs.
The request asks for no new money to pay for fringe-benefit adjustments or utility bills. Cross said system officials don’t foresee having a need for such money because about 1,800 fewer system employees are on state health insurance, choosing instead to get on their spouses’ plans. He also noted that the system has lost about 1,200 employees.
“It’s not an excessive request,” Cross said. “It’s time to invest. Let’s send a message that this is really important.”
The system has been grappling with tight finances over the past four years. Walker and Republican lawmakers froze in-state undergraduate tuition in the 2013-15 state budget after word broke that system schools were sitting on massive reserves while raising tuition year after year. They extended the freeze for another two years in the 2015-17 budget and cut $250 million from the system.
Walker has called for the tuition freeze to be extended for another two years and has warned the system that it shouldn’t expect any additional state aid in the next budget. The governor is considering more money for UW if schools meet performance benchmarks, but he has been vague on the details and hasn’t said what schools would have to accomplish to win more money or how much funding would be available.
Cross said the system remains an economic engine for the state and deserves more money. He presented reporters with data supporting his argument, noting that four years of frozen tuition may have made college more affordable in the short term but that class sizes are increasing and class availability is decreasing, which translates to students paying more because it takes longer to graduate.
Other components of the request include:
—New statutory language allowing the regents to issue bonds backed by program fees to fund projects. The state building commission would release the bonds in the amounts requested.
—Allow the system to purchase academic-related items without going through the state Department of Administration.
The next state budget is a long way off. State agencies must submit their requests to Walker by mid-September, and he will release his version of the budget early next year. The Legislature’s finance committee will spend months revising the spending plan before forwarding it to the full Senate and Assembly for approval. It then goes back to the governor, who can use his veto power to reshape the plan one more time. The whole process will likely wrap up next summer.