The proposed conversion of the UW System from a state agency to a public authority is fast becoming a political phenomenon of that most uncanny variety: one whose abject awfulness is matched only by the growing sense of inevitability that surrounds it.
Others this week have written at length about the problems that attend the public authority conversion. See especially Noel Radomski’s comparison of Wisconsin’s proposal to what happened in Virginia, as well as recent assessments and synopses by Chuck Rybak and Richard Grusin.
As all of these authors emphasize, the core problem with the public authority proposal is that there is no proposal. The people of Wisconsin are being asked to scrap the entirety of the portion of state law that defines the UW System (Chapter 36), which has effectively—if imperfectly, or so administrators tell us—governed a highly complex organization for decades, and trade it all in for…what’s behind Door #3. Seriously. There is no proposal. This point was underlined at today’s meeting of the UWM Faculty Senate, where one of the three visiting Regents averred, in response to a senator’s question, that this is simply how government does things. A panel will be convened in the coming year to hash out all the details; you could even be on it! In the meantime, Chapter 36 goes in the shredder. Shoot first, ask questions later.
Radomski’s comparison with Virginia is particularly striking. According to him, Virginia took the first formal steps toward exploring a public authority conversion in 1988. Many years of study, public dialogue, and revision went by before Virginia’s public authority became law in 2005. That’s 17 years. By comparison, the amount of time between when the public first heard about Scott Walker’s proposed conversion (late January of this year) and when it would be implemented (July 1, 2016) is roughly 17 months. The timeline for a decision—from the unveiling of Walker’s budget proposal to its eventual passage in the legislature—is approximately 17 weeks.
To repeat: we have zero information about how the public authority would work, how much money the conversion itself is likely to cost, or how much money might eventually be saved as a result. No relevant analyses of the UW System budget have been published, no specific proposals have been put forth, and no public hearings held. It is quite literally impossible to know whether the public authority itself is a good idea, because there is no idea to evaluate. The proposed conversion, then—the idea that we should change the UW System into a wholly undefined public authority—is beyond insane. It is, rather, deeply suspicious.
Walker and his supporters in the legislature are obviously bargaining in bad faith: they want to cut the unprecedentedly massive sum of $300 million in state support to UW over the next two years in order to plug a deficit created by tax cuts, and they seem to believe that the public authority will help them make an otherwise shaky political case for slashing UW’s funding. The UW administrators who have come out in favor of the public authority fare little better in one’s speculation. The most charitable available interpretation is that they see an opportunity to free themselves from the control of a hostile and capricious legislative majority. But their professed enthusiasm for the corporate-style managerial powers that would likely accrue to them under the new plan—notably, the power to issue debt and control tuition rates—is, if anything, a little too genuine.
It is, of course, possible that a future UW Public Authority could have advantages over the current UW System. But it is painfully obvious at this point that none of the major players on either side of the absurd cuts-for-public authority “deal” is interested in taking the time to find out, much less to make the case to the public.
We are sprinting onto the diving board. Let’s pray there’s water in the pool.