Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher

About those tools…

How will the UW System absorb Scott Walker’s permanent $150-million-per-year cut in state funding? The suggestion from the outset has been that the “flexibilities” afforded by converting the UW from a state agency to a public authority will make up for the lost state funding. Unencumbered by state procurement rules and other restrictions, the UW Public Authority will have the Act 10-style “tools” it needs to make up for the losses. Never mind that the Walker administration has not produced any study or analysis showing that the $150-million-per-year figure is a realistic one; the logic of the cuts-for-tools deal between Walker and UW System President Ray Cross can at least be stated with a straight face, provided you don’t look too hard at the actual numbers.

But this week has brought a flurry of changes and updates, as people have begun to take a closer look at the tools. At his public forum on Tuesday morning, UWM Chancellor Mark Mone noted that Walker’s proposed budget has the cuts beginning on July 1, 2015, while the UW Public Authority comes into existence exactly one year later, on July 1, 2016. In other words, the amount of money that would be saved in the 2015-16 fiscal year by conversion to a public authority would be exactly $0. So much for offsetting the first year’s $150 million cut. Your tools are on back-order…for a year.

By Wednesday, Walker’s spokespeople were hedging furiously, asserting that the UW System needn’t absorb the $300 million in cuts evenly over the two years of the 2015-17 biennium and proposing that the public authority could be created sooner. Your tools are actually in stock, they’re just in our warehouse across town.

Then, today, Walker suggested that he is open to the possibility of capping tuition increases at the rate of inflation starting in 2017, when his currently proposed tuition freeze is set to expire. On second thought, we’ll be keeping your tools in our garage. (We’re still smashing your car, though.)

The takeaway from the week’s rapidly changing budget landscape is that the tools part of the cuts-for-tools deal is very much subject to revision. The cuts, not so much, at least not publicly so far. There is plenty of speculation that the size of the cuts might be reduced through negotiations in the legislature. But to date, Scott Walker seems open to changing literally any part of the deal except the massive cuts themselves. This, of course, totally demolishes Walker’s already half-hearted conceit that he cares about offsetting the cuts. On Monday, the cuts-for-tools deal might have seemed on the level, if dubious in motivation and mathematically challenged. By Thursday, Walker revealed it to be an utter charade.

As if any more evidence of the Walker administration’s bad faith were necessary, Department of Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch told reporters on Wednesday that, in the event that spring tax receipts are higher than currently projected, the extra money should go toward…new tax cuts. Even Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, Mr. Ancient Mating Habits of Whatever himself, wouldn’t go so far, saying that the legislature’s priorities would be softening the cuts to UW and K-12 education.

As we learn more about the public authority model, it becomes less and less clear why anyone who works or studies at the UW would be in favor of it. Rather than step back and study what this massive change would entail and what savings it might plausibly bring, Walker is instead proposing to rush even faster into the unknown. And for Cross and the various UW chancellors who have come out in favor of the public authority, Walker’s proposed tuition-increase cap is surely a bitter pill. As Lenora Hanson and Elsa Noterman of UW-Madison wrote this week, the debt-issuing power of public authorities—one of the key flexibilities afforded under the model—is often backed by future tuition as collateral. But Walker and the legislature may find it impossible to relinquish control of such a politically sensitive power, leaving the future UW Public Authority’s bonding power seriously hamstrung.

This deal is getting worse all the time.


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