By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — University of Wisconsin officials pressed Republican lawmakers on Tuesday to approve spending $1.1 billion to repair and renovate buildings throughout the system, warning that they can’t continue to attract the talent employers need without up-to-date structures.
System President Ray Cross told reporters during a news conference in an old UW-Madison lecture hall that 60 percent of the system’s buildings are between 45 and 70 years old and in desperate need of improvement.
“Right now employers are screaming at us, saying you need to create more graduates, develop more talent. Students and employers expect modern learning environments,” Cross said. “These buildings are all decaying. They’re all coming to the ends of their natural lives.”
Gov. Tony Evers’ capital budget proposal calls for spending $2.5 billion on construction projects throughout Wisconsin, about $1.1 billion of which would set aside for repair and renovations in the UW System. The proposal would have $38 million borrowed for classroom technology; $77.6 million to renovate Camp Randall Stadium; $48 million for the Kohl Center; $40 million to renovate UW-Milwaukee’s student union; $83 million for a new science building at UW-La Crosse; and $6.7 million to renovate UW-Parkside’s fire alarms.
Republicans on the state Building Commission rejected the entire capital budget in March and sent the spending plan on to the Legislature’s finance committee without an endorsement, an unprecedented move that underscored the divide between Evers and the GOP. In most years, the commission will make a bipartisan recommendation of the current governor’s proposal and the finance committee will go along with the bulk of the request.
The finance committee is expected to take up the capital budget perhaps as early as next week.
Kit Beyer, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, said Tuesday that Vos, a former student regent, understands the importance of investing in UW.
“He’s hopeful that legislators can find a way to fund many of the UW’s capital projects,” Beyer said.
Alec Zimmerman, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, didn’t immediately respond to an email.
The spending plan’s fate looks bleak, though. Republicans control the committee and last week voted to give the system only about half of the $127 million in additional state aid Evers had proposed. Cross called the vote a “kick in the shins,” saying lawmakers had told him Evers request was reasonable.
Cross and UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank held their news conference in UW-Madison’s 116-year-old Agricultural Hall. They addressed reporters in a lecture hall that has wooden floors that have been worn smooth and hundreds of battered wooden chairs.
Blank said the hall’s HVAC system doesn’t work and students have no room for their laptops and notebooks. The governor’s proposed capital budget calls for spending $3.1 million to renovate the hall. The money would come from borrowing supported by tax dollars.
Blank argued that Evers’ budget would have most of UW-Madison’s projects paid for with donations and borrowing supported by funds generated by activities associated with the projects, such as ticket sales, rather than general tax dollars
“We’re not asking the state to fund them,” she said.
Asked whether he’s gotten any commitments from Republican lawmakers, Cross said only that “they understand our needs.” He said the finance committee’s decision to reduce state aid for the system still stings.
“I think my shins will heal, but I also know they’ll remain sore,” he said. “But these buildings won’t heal themselves. This is where the investment needs to be made in the University of Wisconsin.”