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The Legislature's budget-writing committee on Thursday rejected Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to cut tuition at University of Wisconsin schools, opting instead to extend a tuition freeze for the next two years.

The Republican-led Joint Finance Committee also voted to approve $26.3 million in performance-based funding to be tied to four goals for the UW System: student access, student progress and completion, contributions to the workforce and operational efficiency and effectiveness. The Board of Regents would be required to set metrics to measure schools' progress toward those goals if they stay in the budget once it is formally adopted. 

Some of those performance goals will help make college more affordable, said Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, specifically by focusing on completion rates and time to graduate.

The UW System is a "tremendous asset" to the state of Wisconsin, Harsdorf said. "This investment today will be well worth it in addressing meeting our workforce needs."

Joint Finance co-chairs Sen. Alberta Darling and Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, also said the committee is committed to providing $29.6 million to fund 2 percent salary and benefit increases for UW employees, although that funding stream will be taken up later in the budget process. Those increases were to be funded by Walker's proposed switch to a statewide self-insurance program, a move the committee's leaders have said they plan to reject. 

"They’re getting such a good investment," said Darling, R-River Hills. "We feel like this is a good compromise."

The committee on Tuesday delayed a scheduled vote on the UW System budget amid disagreement over Walker's proposed tuition cut.

This budget comes in the wake of a four-year tuition freeze along with a $250 million cut to the system's funding delivered in Walker's 2015-17 budget. Before the freeze, implemented in Walker's second budget, tuition had gone up 5.5 percent annually since the 2007-08 academic year.

Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, said he believes relations between the UW System and the Legislature are continually improving and "the best days for the UW are still ahead of it." 

Lawmakers also voted on Thursday to:

  • Provide $5 million to increase enrollments in high-demand degree programs
  • Provide $10,000 to "review and revise policies related to academic freedom"
  • Require the number of degree and certificate options offered through the UW Flexible Option program — which allows working adults to earn a college degree in part by demonstrating proficiency they've gained on their own — to be increased by 25 percent by 2020 and increase the amount of financial aid available for students in those programs
  • Provide $3 million to create the Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership, with the mission of "the facilitation of research, teaching, outreach and needed policy reforms regarding effective public leadership that improve the practice of American government"
  • Make more family members of disabled and deceased veterans eligible for a tuition-free college education by expanding eligibility to include children and spouses of veterans who have lived in the state for five consecutive years
  • Exempt members of the Wisconsin National Guard from paying nonresident tuition, with some conditions
  • Require the UW System and Wisconsin Technical College System to accept the American Council on Education's recommendation to allow some academic credit for military training
  • Allow the Board of Regents to create an engineering school at UW-Green Bay
  • Provide $980,000 to expand precision medicine at the UW Carbone Cancer Center
  • Provide $880,000 for the Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Technology at UW-Stevens Point 
  • Provide $200,000 to fund  the Rural Physician Residency Assistance Program
  • Provide $100,000 to fund the UW-Madison Alzheimer's Disease Research Center
  • Require the Board of Regents to set policies to ensure that the classification of student segregated fees as "allocable" or "nonallocable" is consistent across institutions 
  • Require an independent audit of the UW System's finances 
  • Bar the Board of Regents from transferring funds to the UW-Oshkosh foundation without approval from the Joint Finance Committee, following allegations of money mismanagement under former Chancellor Richard Wells
  • Bar the Board of Regents from setting a policy to only consider UW faculty members, those with tenure at other institutions or those who hold terminal degrees for appointment as UW System President or chancellor or vice chancellor of a UW institution 

Democrats on the committee supported some elements of the Republican plan, but voted against it in its entirety. They offered their own alternative that would have done away with performance funding requirements and offered an additional $500 million in funding for the system. Their proposal would have lifted the tuition freeze.

The minority party argued that, by not setting aside funding to offset the tuition freeze, the Republican motion amounted to a cut to the UW budget. 

The Democratic proposal also would have restored the Wisconsin environmental education board, which was eliminated under the 2015-17 budget. Their plan also would have made tuition free at two-year UW colleges at a cost of $40.3 million over the course of the budget.

"This motion is about making sure we secure the future and economic prosperity of our state," said Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point. 

Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, pointed out five budget items he would support eliminating in order to funnel $500 million to the UW System, including the governor's proposed sales tax holiday and his proposed income tax rate reduction. 

Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, was also critical of the proposed makeup of the Thompson Center's public leadership board, whose members would consist of a director, the president of the Thompson Family Charitable Foundation, a person who worked under Thompson's direction during his time in government, and appointees made by the Senate majority leader and Assembly Speaker. Under the current legislative makeup, that would likely mean Democrats would not serve on the board until they win a legislative majority. 

UW System President Ray Cross thanked lawmakers in a statement for their work on the budget. 

"We put forth a reasonable budget request that strategically aligns our resources with the state’s greatest needs," Cross said in a statement. "While we have concerns with some of the provisions, the vast majority of our requests were approved, and we look forward to working with the legislature on remaining issues, including our capital budget and compensation requests."

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.

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