Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher

The cuts are the thing

If you were becoming convinced that the plan to convert the UW System to a public authority was intended primarily to shift discussion and attention away from the permanent $150-million-per-year funding cut that is simultaneously being proposed, today’s stultifying three-hour Joint Finance Committee hearing on the UW System budget probably didn’t do much to change your mind.

The public authority proposal dominated discussion: its attendant flexibilities and efficiencies, the “stable and predictable” funding source it is slated to enjoy, the enhanced accountability that will be expected of the UW System in exchange for the autonomy, and worries about how to control tuition increases. System President Ray Cross made a brief, pro forma request for a softening of the funding cut at the conclusion of his opening remarks, but those remarks were headlined by a plea for the public authority. To the extent that committee members brought up funding at all, it was mostly to ask questions about System account balances, which, two years after they were used to manufacture a scandal during the heart of the budget-writing process, still seem to elicit Benghazi-like levels of indignation from some Republican legislators.

The cuts are the thing. A committee member wants to know why tuition has far outpaced inflation over the past two decades? Because the state has continually cut funding. As this chart prepared by PROFS at UW-Madison shows, tuition increases almost exactly match per-student decreases in general-purpose GPR since 2000. There is an easy way to stem the tide of tuition increases, but none of the ostensibly very concerned Republicans in the room dared speak its name.

The cuts are the thing. The UW System’s own estimate, repeated today by Cross, is that the public authority might eventually save between $15 million and $20 million per year. This estimate is so far unsupported by documentation and is likely to be a generous one, given System’s enthusiastic endorsement of the public authority conversion. But Scott Walker’s proposal is to cut UW’s funding by $150 million per year in perpetuity (with CPI-pegged increases beginning in 2018). Even the rosiest estimate of what the public authority can do thus leaves 87% to 90% of Walker’s cuts unaccounted for.

The cuts are the thing, and the public authority has been presented as the quid pro quo. Many seem to see this as the best that can be achieved in a bad situation: take the public authority offer or risk getting nothing! But why would Walker offer UW leaders the public authority if he didn’t feel he had to? Out of the goodness of his heart? Far more likely is that Walker expected that the $300 million cut over the coming biennium would receive significant pushback, and needed something to get buy-in from UW administrators and to distract everyone else.

UW administrative buy-in has certainly been achieved (apparently it’s mandatory). In exchange, UW leadership has given up any leverage it might have had for resisting the cuts. After all, they’re getting what they want! But they’re getting it with significant strings attached. The CPI-pegged increases in funding—a cornerstone of the “stable and predictable” funding source of which Cross is so enamored—don’t start until a year into the next budget cycle, which must be approved by the next legislature. The current legislature, in other words, would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today. The legislature will also, of course, retain ultimate control over that funding, Cross’s promises of stability and predictability notwithstanding.

Distraction of everyone else has also largely been achieved. Legislators have an excuse to focus on the minutiae of the public authority proposal instead of on the cuts, and faculty and staff have been preoccupied with the proposed removal of Chapter 36 and its attendant protections from state law. It is entirely possible that tenure and shared governance will survive intact in Board of Regents policy, and that they will be no more vulnerable there than they are under the control of the current legislature. But the present crisis stems entirely from the cuts, and so it is no small irony that UW System leadership’s vigorous cheerleading for the public authority has been a major contributor to distracting attention from them.

The cuts are the thing. They are part of a vicious and entirely deliberate cycle of tax cuts, deficits, and spending cuts. To willfully ignore this reality—to participate in the theater of its unutterability, as UW System leaders did today—is to condemn UW to its continued depredations for the foreseeable future.

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