University of Wisconsin System officials are refusing to release the details of their proposed operating budget for the coming fiscal year, saying they will only publicly disclose what’s in their budget just before the UW Board of Regents plans to vote on it Thursday afternoon.
The Regents are scheduled to discuss and vote on the 2016-17 annual operating budget, as well as tuition and fee schedules, at a meeting Thursday at UW-Milwaukee, according to an agenda.
But less than 24 hours before that vote — and days after officials posted meeting materials online providing detailed information about other items on the agenda — UW had yet to release the operating budget on its website or in response to a Wisconsin State Journal request for the document under the state’s open records law.
Open government advocates say there’s no legal reason for UW to withhold the documents if they have been shared with the Regents and requested under the records law.
One budget proposal calls for increasing student fees by $59 per student on average Systemwide, a UW System spokesman said, though he did not specify how much fees would rise at each UW campus.
Spokesman Alex Hummel said in an email Wednesday afternoon that officials have not finished drafting the budget, and that it will be released only once the Regents start their discussion of it around 1:30 p.m. Thursday.
“UW System staff, along with the Board of Regents office, have continued working on finalizing budget materials so they are ready for board review when tomorrow’s public meeting, discussion and afternoon webcast take place,” Hummel wrote in an email Wednesday.
Hummel said the Regents received “initial materials” relating to the meeting earlier this week but did not say if they have received the proposed budget.
He did not respond to a question asking whether the Regents would have enough time to review the budget ahead of their vote.
UW’s operating budget has become a point of political contention because it reflects a $250 million two-year cut from the System’s funding in the 2015-17 state budget.
Gov. Scott Walker has pointed to the operating budget in recent weeks as he seeks to downplay the impact of state cuts, noting UW’s overall budget increased last year despite reduced state funding — something System officials say was the result of using reserve funds.
Several Democratic lawmakers called attention to the fee increases on Wednesday, including state Sen. Janet Bewley, D-Delta, who blasted Walker and Republican legislators who backed cuts to UW’s funding.
“They are responsible for these fee hikes,” Bewley said.
Legislators, faculty and UW supporters criticized top System officials in April after they declined to make time at a Regents meeting for chancellors to detail the impacts the budget cuts have had on their campuses, news first reported by the State Journal.
The lengthy and complex budget materials are expected to include the operating budgets of each UW campus.
Last year, before the Regents approved the System’s current operating budget, officials released the proposed budget and discussed it in detail with the media three days before the board met. UW officials finished drafting that budget well before the Regents’ meeting despite the fact that state lawmakers had not yet passed their budget and had at one point earlier in the year changed the System’s funding allocation.
Hummel said earlier this week that UW officials planned to release the budget materials Wednesday.
Madison media attorney Robert Dreps said government entities such as the UW System are not legally required to publicly post meeting materials, as UW generally does, though he said that practice is customary for many public bodies.
Those documents are public records, though, and should be released if they are requested, Dreps said.
Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council President Bill Lueders said UW officials should not delay in providing the documents.
The Regents’ records custodian, Jane Radue, acknowledged the State Journal’s request for the budget and other documents Wednesday afternoon. But Radue did not provide the records, saying she was preparing for the board’s meeting and would provide the documents “just as soon as (is) practicable.”
State Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, said he released a statement about the System’s budget and fee increases on Wednesday because he assumed it would be publicly available by then.
“I’m wondering why they’ve departed from the past in making sure the information was provided ahead of time,” Erpenbach said.
‘UW System staff, along with the Board of Regents office, have continued working on finalizing budget materials so they are ready for board review when tomorrow’s public meeting, discussion and afternoon webcast take place.’ Alex Hummel
UW System spokesman