First the governor proposed a $300 million cut to the University of Wisconsin System.
Then he needlessly impugned professors by suggesting they should work harder.
Now Gov. Scott Walker is backtracking from an attempt to diminish the System’s long-held academic principles. The Republican governor’s budget inexplicably eliminated “the search for truth” from the System’s mission statement, as well as its goal to “improve the human condition.”
After initially saying he was trying to “hone in” the System’s focus, Walker later blamed a “drafting error” and now says a miscommunication was the culprit.
Whatever happened, it’s clear that higher education is not the governor’s priority. Nor is paying for roads with real money. Nor is using available federal dollars to offset the high cost of health care. The Legislature has a lot of fixing to do as it rewrites the governor’s two-year, $68 billion budget.
For starters, lawmakers should ease the university cut. The governor pitched his historic reduction to the 26-campus System as a trade. UW would lose state aid in exchange for more autonomy from state rules.
But Walker wants to cut university funding before the campuses get more freedom over their finances. That’s backward. The flexibility should come before the cuts. Like a business, the System will need time to implement new building, personnel and purchasing practices to achieve savings. Republicans who run the Legislature seem to agree that a $300 million cut is unreasonable. That’s reassuring.
They also are appropriately skeptical of the governor’s borrowing binge for roads. Nobody likes higher gas taxes or license fees. But that’s how highways and bridges are largely paid for. And the cost of construction continues to rise.
The state Assembly understands inflation. Members just raised their daily allowance for food, lodging and travel to $138. Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, justified the 56 percent increase by noting the rate hadn’t been changed since 2001.
Well, Wisconsin’s gas tax of 32.9 cents per gallon hasn’t gone up since 2006. It needs to increase to help pay for more expensive road work. Even a higher gas tax won’t be enough because fuel-efficient cars are using less gas, which means drivers are paying less tax at pumps.
Vos said last week he wants the Legislature to consider raising vehicle registration fees based on miles driven to help pay for roads. That’s a good idea.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said his members are concerned about road borrowing, the big cut to UW, and K-12 schools.
The governor is pledging more money for property tax relief, which is welcome. But public schools can’t get by on flat funding forever.
Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, a member of the Legislature’s budget committee, wants the powerful panel to reconsider Wisconsin’s rejection of a federal Medicaid expansion. More Republican-run states are figuring out how to take the Affordable Care Act money in politically palatable ways. Doing so in Wisconsin could bring in $300 million for the BadgerCare program.
The governor is strongly considering a bid for president. He’d like to quickly sign a state spending package that doesn’t offend conservative voters in early presidential primary and caucus states such as Iowa.
The Legislature, to its credit, doesn’t appear compliant if Wisconsin’s universities, public schools and roads will be hurt.
Republicans got Wisconsin into the third-largest budget shortfall in two decades by prioritizing tax breaks over fiscal responsibility. Now they need to get Wisconsin out of the hole they dug — without sacrificing key priorities.