Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher

Cross doubles down

There is no daylight between Scott Walker and Ray Cross. That is the very clear message of yesterday’s Journal-Sentinel op-ed penned by Cross, the UW System president tasked with absorbing Walker’s permanent $150-million-per-year funding cut and changing the system from a state agency to a public authority. Anyone hoping for an appeal to caution, deliberation, or even minimal study of the public authority transition from the man who will oversee its implementation—and there are many of us who are—will not find it here.

Nor can one find even a hint of protest at the unprecedentedly massive cut in state funding proposed by Walker. Cross mentions “the challenging fiscal reality facing Wisconsin” (read: a deficit created by supply-side tax cuts) and notes that “we have a substantial budget reduction to face and to manage”. But in the next breath, we hear that Walker’s budget also contains “the tools to build a more stable and sustainable UW System of the future”. The man whose office should make him the most powerful and vocal opponent of the cuts has publicly accepted them as a foregone conclusion.

It is possible to interpret Cross’s move here as a tactical surrender: with UW-hostile Republicans in control of state government, he recognizes the weakness of his position and accepts the terrible deal on offer for fear of ending up with something even worse. This interpretation, though, overlooks the crucial fact of Walker’s willingness to enter into a deal in the first place. Magnanimity and even-handedness are not exactly Walker’s calling cards. He struck a deal with Cross because he thought he needed to in order to sell the cuts. Cross has thus either failed to recognize the strength of his hand and foolishly folded early, or he has something equally valuable at stake.

Indeed, there is much to recommend the theory that Cross covets the public authority and sees the deal with Walker as his best chance at getting it. In a Jan. 6 email released under a freedom of information request, Cross told UWM’s chancellor that “this is something we might not get a shot at for another 20-30 years”. Cross is described as having been blindsided by the proposed cuts—he had asked for a $95 million increase—but recognizing an opportunity to craft a grand bargain. The result is the hastily arranged marriage between Walker’s cuts and Cross’s public authority.

So where are we left? We have a sketchy proposal to convert the UW System into a near-totally amorphous public authority; the one explicit provision is the one stripping statutory rights and protections for UW employees and students from their longstanding place in state law. We have had no period of study to ascertain how much money this ostensibly savings-oriented conversion might eventually save—to say nothing of the magnitude of its likely effect on tuition—and we will not have one. Walker’s cuts will ravage UW campuses in the near term, and our system president has taken to the state’s leading newspaper to provide political cover for him.

This deck is stacked, all right.

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