When sophomore Republican legislator David Murphy applied in November to lead the Assembly higher education committee, he pitched a fairly bold idea — “Eliminate or reform the University of Wisconsin Colleges and Extension.”
“It’s an antiquated system that was originally designed for an agrarian economy,” Murphy, R-Greenville, wrote about the University of Wisconsin System’s 13 two-year colleges and the continuing education program with offices in all 72 counties. “Many of these functions are or can be done by the (Wisconsin Technical College System).”
The pitch must have resonated. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, named Murphy — who attended a UW two-year college in the 1970s, but didn’t complete his degree — the new chairman of the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities.
Murphy’s comments, which he later clarified in an interview, are included among 52 “term papers” — as Vos described them — that GOP representatives submitted to Vos’ office as he decided who would lead and serve on three dozen Assembly committees and a dozen other joint committees.
The State Journal obtained copies under the state’s open records law.
In an interview Friday, Vos emphasized that the papers were written in November, in many cases before lawmakers had time to research the ideas they were pitching.
Vos disclosed in a meeting with the State Journal editorial board in December that he had asked lawmakers for the papers. But in the interview Friday, he criticized the newspaper for writing about them, saying he was concerned it would leave out the best ideas and focus on those that make Republicans seem controversial.
“I think it’s a shame that this type of situation will make people in the future less candid, which I think is bad for our system,” Vos said.
A total of 52 Republicans submitted the papers. The other 11 members of the caucus either serve in leadership positions or on the powerful budget-writing Joint Finance Committee.
Economic issues emerged as a top concern among Assembly Republicans. The five most popular committee requests were for Workforce Development, Jobs and the Economy, Agriculture, Tourism, and Energy and Utilities.
Ideas that appear in several papers have been well-publicized: cutting taxes, reducing government regulations, requiring drug testing for public benefit recipients, adding a photo ID to food stamp cards, reforming the Government Accountability Board, expanding private school vouchers, rolling back the Common Core State Standards and focusing on worker training through the technical college system.
“It’s exactly what we have said during the course of the campaign,” Vos said. “The Assembly Republican caucus is trying to create an environment that focuses on our priorities of private sector job creation, reducing the size of government, greater accountability and a Legislature that gets things done.”
Other ideas, like Murphy’s proposal to eliminate or reform the UW Extension, have not been discussed publicly.
In an interview, Murphy clarified that he didn’t want to eliminate the UW Colleges. He said he had a good experience in the 1970s at UW-Fox Valley, one of the UW System’s 13 two-year campuses that allow students to earn college credit before transferring to one of the four-year campuses.
“I really like the two-year campuses because it’s a good way for the students to get off to an inexpensive start,” Murphy said.
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He didn’t back away from saying the UW Extension’s services overlap with the technical college system and that it has become “antiquated.” The Extension provides adult continuing education services, includes Wisconsin Public Television and Wisconsin Public Radio and extends university research to every corner of the state, a concept popularly referred to as the “Wisconsin Idea.”
Murphy said he pitched his idea to Gov. Scott Walker and UW System President Ray Cross, but based on their reactions he doesn’t expect he will pursue it anytime soon.
“I found out there are no new ideas,” Murphy said. “I got the impression that it was something (Walker) thought of before and I didn’t get the impression that it was going anywhere.”
Vos agreed it was a big and bold idea, which is partly why he assigned Murphy to the committee. However, he hasn’t spoken with Murphy about pursuing it.
“The fact that (the UW Extension) is built on a model that might no longer be relevant, it’s something we should think about,” Vos said. “I give him a lot of credit for saying, ‘I’m going to dive into these topics and not just pass my time in the Legislature.’ ”
Among the ideas pitched by lawmakers who Vos appointed to lead a committee:
• Education committee chairman Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R-Fond du Lac, called for “boosting qualifications of teacher candidates from our colleges/universities” as the key to improving student growth. “There needs to be less focus on the student/teacher ratio so we can focus on great teaching.”
• Tourism committee chairman Travis Tranel, R-Cuba City, proposed reducing unnecessary regulations that may be preventing historic barns from operating as tourist attractions.
• Transportation committee chairman Rep. Keith Ripp, R-Lodi, wanted to promote as a best practice pumping manure through pipelines as an alternative to transporting manure by truck, alleviating some of the wear and tear on roads. A Ripp spokeswoman said towns are pushing for a bill to make that happen, but it might not require a change in law.
• Environment and Forestry committee chairman Rep. Jeffrey Mursau, R-Crivitz, called for “working to get our national forests up to their allowable cuts.” Environmental activists have opposed doing that in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, but Vos said “we should be looking at (trees) in a way that maximizes the ability to take it in as a crop and not something that should never be cut.”
• Children and Families Committee chairwoman Jessie Rodriguez, R-Franklin, called for exploring treatment options for child victims of human trafficking.
• Health Committee chairman Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-West Allis, suggested possibly allowing people to buy private health insurance with Medicaid money.
• Workforce Development committee chairman Rep. Warren Petryk, R-Eleva, highlighted a Tennessee program that allows college students to earn academic credit while working in a high-skill or high-tech industry.
• Jobs and the Economy committee chairman Rep. Adam Neylon, R-Pewaukee, suggested capping food stamp benefits after two years so that families could continue to receive assistance, but not additional benefits if their family grows. Vos said the idea “certainly has merit.”
• Mining and Rural Development committee chairman Rep. Bob Kulp, R-Stratford, proposed statewide standards and third-party arbitration for local road agreements to prevent municipalities from “holding up (mining and other) companies for millions of dollars to pay for roads and repairs.”