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Gov. Scott Walker has suggested imposing a tuition cap after 2017.

Gov. Scott Walker is raising the prospect of capping tuition at the state’s public universities after a tuition freeze expires in 2017.

The suggestion might win over lawmakers concerned that more autonomy for the University of Wisconsin System would lead to runaway tuition increases, but it calls into question how much independence university officials would have under Walker’s 2015-17 budget proposal.

“I think some sort of a tuition cap that’s tied into inflation makes sense,” Walker told reporters Thursday in a conference call from London.

Walker has proposed cutting $300 million in state funding for the UW System and continuing a tuition freeze over the next two years. In exchange, the System would have more autonomy starting July 1, 2016, over such matters as human resources and building and construction, though Walker said this week he is open to establishing the authority sooner, if needed.

Under Walker’s budget proposal, the System would have more say over tuition after 2017. But lawmakers have raised concerns that the autonomy would allow huge tuition increases to make up for lost state funding. Walker said he is “perfectly comfortable working on something with the Legislature if that’s the comfort level they want to pass an authority.”

UW-Madison chancellor Rebecca Blank said Thursday that she doubts campuses would try to dramatically increase tuition to ease budget cuts. She added that if the UW System becomes an independent entity, the Board of Regents should make decisions about tuition increases, not the Legislature or governor.

“I don’t expect that people are going to be coming in asking for huge increases because we know we have to meet a market, and we have to be accessible to Wisconsin students,” Blank said. “Reaching down in and micromanaging that is again exactly the world that we’ve been in and need to avoid.”

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said Thursday he’s open to the idea, which also has been proposed by Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Universities and Technical Colleges, of limiting tuition increases to the consumer price index or another yardstick.

“I think there should be some type of reasonable cap put on (tuition),” Vos said.

“I certainly don’t support the idea of giving this new authority unfettered ability to raise tuition,” Vos said.

Open to more funding

Vos, R-Rochester, said he is open to increasing state funding for the UW System but only if the state’s revenue picture improves.

“When you have a tough budget and you have to find ways to balance it, you ask everybody to take reductions, and the university does have the opportunity, with flexibility, to save some of that money,” Vos said.

UW System President Ray Cross wouldn’t say Thursday whether he favors tuition limits.

“We appreciate the concerns being voiced about the affordability and pricing of a UW System education, especially in the context of the proposed UW System authority,” Cross said in a statement. “We are heartened that many legislative leaders, including Speaker Vos, remain open to the possibility of an authority and increased flexibility as well as continued discussion about what is an appropriate funding level.”

Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, said she favors limits to ensure that tuition doesn’t skyrocket. Harsdorf, chairwoman of the Senate higher education committee, said she would favor making autonomy contingent on meeting benchmarks including affordability and length of time it takes students to earn degrees.

She added she’s confident the colleges and universities can find some savings, but it’s too soon to say how much. Harsdorf noted that lawmakers have not yet been briefed on how the System would handle Walker’s proposed cuts nor have they held hearings to gauge the public’s reaction.

“It’s very early in the process,” she said.

The top Democratic leader in the Assembly said he is not opposed to controlling tuition so long as the state maintains its investment in higher education.

But limiting tuition while imposing a big cut in state funding would be “devastating,” said Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha. Barca accused Walker of “poor educational leadership” at a time when other states are investing in their universities as the national economy improves.

“Scott Walker is destroying, in my judgment, one of the greatest college systems in the country if not in the world,” Barca said. “Make no mistake about it: their ability to recoup from these deep cuts that the governor’s put forward, his hamstringing their ability to be able to absorb these cuts, is going to make it very difficult for us to recover.

“In a knowledge-based world economy, this is absolutely the worst thing he could be doing to our state at this juncture.”

Noel Radomski, director of the UW-Madison’s Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education, said Walker’s proposal for autonomy may be “unraveling.” In recent days, the governor has said implementation could be pushed up by a full year — to this July — even though details of how that would be handled have not been worked out. And now Walker is proposing to limit tuition increases rather than allowing the independent authority to manage its own financial affairs.

“The pieces of the public authority are beginning to be questioned,” Radomski said.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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