The University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents approved the System’s 2019-21 proposed operating and capital budgets on Thursday, with the only two dissenting votes coming from the two Regents running for political office.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Evers cast the sole vote against the System’s operating budget because he said more state money is needed to make up for the budget’s tuition freeze for in-state undergraduates.
And Bryan Steil, who is running as the Republican candidate in Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District, cast the lone vote against the $1.96 billion capital budget, saying the amount — which includes about $1.1 billion in state-funded borrowing — was too high and that the System needed to focus its projects priority list.
As state schools superintendent, Evers automatically serves on the board. Almost all of his 17 fellow board members, including Steil, were appointed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who is seeking a third term.
“(Tuition) is going to be frozen,” Evers said to reporters after the meeting. “The governor’s said it. I’ve said it, so that’s going to happen. We need to fully fund that. I think it sends the wrong message to the Legislature that it’s up for debate.”
System officials calculated a potential $70 million net loss from keeping tuition frozen for another two years: Raising tuition by the rate of inflation, or roughly 2.5 percent, would generate about $40 million over the biennium, and increasing employee compensation by 2.5 percent would amount to about $30 million.
About 30 percent of funding for employee pay traditionally comes from tuition revenues.
The System’s proposed operating budget calls for an additional $107.5 million in state funding and no increase in resident undergraduate tuition, which has been frozen since 2013.
Not included in the proposal is the System’s employee compensation plan. System president Ray Cross said the plan is typically discussed and approved by the regents in December — about a month after the Nov. 6 election.
Evers said waiting until December is a “strategic error,” sending the wrong message to lawmakers.
“It’s a fool’s errand to wait until December,” he said. “The dye is cast. If we actually believe that we want to have a good compensation plan, if we actually believe we want to fully fund the freeze, we’ve got to do it now. By the time December comes around, I believe it’s too late and we’re playing with a very weak hand.”
Evers said the additional $70 million to fund the freeze and employee raises should have been included in Thursday’s proposal.
“If it’s a priority, it should be in the budget,” he said.
The budget allocates about $25 million to expanding programming in high-demand fields, such as science, technology, engineering and math, known as the STEM fields.
Regent vice president Drew Petersen called the operating budget “aggressive, but not abrasive” and said he was “absolutely comfortable taking” any criticism for promoting STEM courses.
The System’s proposed $1.96 billion capital budget would cover about $300 million in maintenance, repair or renovation projects and funding for 18 major projects, including a $128 million addition to the Veterinary Medicine building at UW-Madison and a $129.5 million chemistry building for UW-Milwaukee. Of the nearly $2 billion budget, $1.1 billion is state money.
The Legislature will have the final say on the System’s budget when it crafts the state’s 2019-2021 budget next year.