In his press releases of the past few days, Scott Walker has been at pains to emphasize that his 2015-17 proposals for the UW System include freezing in-state undergraduate tuition. Walker has found himself in damage control mode, both over his overweening (and hastily withdrawn) proposal to strike the Wisconsin Idea from state law, and over his proposal to cut $300 million in state funding from the UW System. Walker is well aware of the political sensitivity of UW tuition. Here is what he had to say yesterday:
“In the 2003/05 state budget, former Governor Jim Doyle cut the UW by $250 million. He did not give them reforms to make up for the lost state aid. They made up most of it with higher tuition. Our proposal gives new cost-saving reforms to the UW through an authority—while freezing tuition.”
A tuition freeze without additional state funding to offset it is a classic example of an unfunded mandate. State government is telling the UW System that it cannot exercise one of its standard options for coping with increased operating costs (electricity, health care, promotions, etc.), but is providing no money to compensate for the prohibition. Walker’s suggestion is that the “new cost-saving reforms” in his budget—namely, the conversion of the UW System from a state agency overseen by elected representatives into a public authority overseen by gubernatorial appointees—can compensate for the tuition freeze. In other words, the “tools” that the UW gains through structural reform can, in effect, fund the mandated tuition freeze. Whether the reforms can fully offset a tuition freeze is debatable, but at least it’s a coherent position.
What is not coherent, or even remotely defensible, is Walker’s suggestion that the conversion to a public authority can simultaneously make up for the additional $300 million cut he is proposing over the coming two years, the start of a permanent 13% reduction in state funding to UW. Walker is putting the UW System in a double bind: cuts on one side, tuition freeze on the other. The effect of this, if it becomes law, will be to strangle the UW System for the next two years. The public authority reforms will not come anywhere close to making up for the loss of $150 million per year in perpetuity, let alone that amount *plus* a tuition freeze. Come 2017, when the freeze expires and the legislature no longer controls the UW, students would be paying greatly increased tuition to attend the diminished universities that emerge on the other side of this biennium from hell.
Walker, of course, never comes right out and admits that his reforms are meant to do this double duty. Indeed, he invokes the tuition freeze in the hope of reassuring students and parents that the cuts won’t be that bad. But let’s be real: imposing a massive budget cut and then suggesting that its ill effects can be offset with a tuition freeze is the university budgeting equivalent of stealing from the cash drawer and trying to cover it up by throwing away your inventory. This is the height of bad faith. Any manager or executive who proposed such a thing in earnest would be fired on the spot.
Wisconsin students and parents shouldn’t be fooled. Walker’s proposal for UW is a tuition time bomb set for 2017.