Jack O’Meara can’t understand why a bill with bipartisan support that would boost entrepreneurship by making it easier for University of Wisconsin employees to privately fund and commercialize their research was never brought to the Wisconsin Senate floor before the state Legislature ended its session earlier this month.
“We had a strong coalition of university and business groups that support entrepreneurial activity and recognize that knowledge is the key to future economic development in our state,” said O’Meara, lobbyist for PROFS, the advocacy organization for faculty at UW-Madison.
The bill passed unanimously in committee of both houses and the Assembly approved it on a voice vote. But it was never scheduled for a vote in the Senate.
The legislation fostering entrepreneurship is among a score of bills involving UW not given a chance on the Senate floor this session, including those with bipartisan support to provide tuition remission to students raised in foster care and to create a crime victims legal clinic at UW-Madison.
The Legislature’s scheduled floor period ended March 23. But Republican leaders announced a plan to call lawmakers back for an “extraordinary session” to vote on changes to election law changes. Sen. Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald called off the session and dropped the election law bill when Walker called for the elections Thursday after finding no relief from multiple judges.
Fitzgerald controls what comes to the floor in the Senate. His office did not respond to messages this week asking why the UW entrepreneur bill was not scheduled for a vote.
The bill would provide a new exemption from a state prohibition on public employees entering into contracts in which they have a financial interest. It would replace a 45-day review period before the UW System Board of Regents — now typically required under an existing exemption for researchers who want to contract with a private entity in which they have an interest — with a plan to manage potential conflicts of interest instead.
The bill also changes the definition of a "research company" in the law to include nonprofits as well as businesses and allow UW campuses to contract with nonprofit organizations.
Members of PROFS helped develop the bill and argue that the current process to get approval to put research discoveries to work disadvantage researchers, the university and the state economy.
“Wisconsin law is out of step with the modern research and business worlds because it includes an overly cumbersome and lengthy process for allowing companies and other entities to contract with the university when a faculty or staff member has an interest in the company,” PROFS said.
The bill also would make it easier to bring in research funds from nonprofits, a source that other universities are more successful with, O’Meara said. “The current process for brining in non-profit funds is ridiculous. It requires Attorney General approval for every contract over $15,000 and there is no limitation on the time frame for the AG’s review,” O'Meara said.
UW-Madison fell out of the top five universities nationally for research activity in 2016, O’Meara noted.
O’Meara said he had heard there were concerns among Republicans about oversight of contracts entered into under the proposed streamlined process. But he said the bill would have provided greater oversight of potential conflicts of interest by UW researchers.
“The bill would have strengthened the ethics law by requiring management plans. And oversight of the process would have been strengthened because UW System agreed to include reporting on the contract as part of its annual financial reporting to the Legislature,” he said.
O’Meara said PROFS would address concerns of legislators and ask to have the bill reintroduced next session.
Other legislation involving UW was not brought to a vote this session.
The bill waiving tuition for students raised in foster care was unanimously approved by the Joint Finance Committee and in the Assembly, where sponsors noted those young people typically do not have anyone to help them pay for college or apply for loans.
The legislation that would have created a legal clinic training law students as they provided services to crime victims won unanimous committee approval in the Assembly, where representatives on both sides of the aisle supported it. But the bill did not advance in the Senate, where it was sponsored by Republicans.
Democratic Senate bills to require that student appointees to the Board of Regents be selected from those recommended by student groups and to restore tenure and shared governance provisions to what they had been before 2015 legislation diluting them went nowhere in the Republican-controlled Senate.
But also allowed to languish was a Republican bill requiring the UW System to map out a course for a three-year bachelor’s degree.
The Senate did approve, however, an Assembly version of a bill creating $5,000 annual merit scholarships for UW students to send it on to Gov. Scott Walker's desk.
This post was corrected to say that merit scholarship legislation was approved by both chambers of the legislature.