This past Thursday’s Board of Regents meeting in Madison appears to have completely upended the debate over the proposed conversion of the UW System to a public authority. Last Tuesday, System President Ray Cross spent three hours before the Joint Finance Committee of the legislature pleading his case for the public authority. By Thursday, the Board of Regents had explicitly declined to pass a resolution supporting the public authority model championed by Cross, and instead resolved unanimously that the System should seek the coveted “flexibilities” either through amendments to existing statute (i.e., by tweaking Chapter 36 instead of nuking it) or through an “agreed-upon” public authority model (i.e., one that has received an actual public vetting).
Credit for the change in tune is due most immediately to David Walsh, a Regent who is also a Madison attorney and chair of the UW Hospital and Clinics Authority Board (often held out, with a mix of hopefulness and cluelessness, as a model or precedent for the proposed UW System Authority). In other words, Thursday’s pushback was initiated by someone who knows a thing or two about public authorities and their legal and financial intricacies.
Of course, those close to the UW System—faculty, staff, students, alumni—have been sounding the alarm about the public authority proposal for weeks. An open letter to Cross calling for a two-year study period and moratorium on implementation now has over 500 signatures, including those of former Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Tom Loftus and the prominent Milwaukee businessman Sheldon Lubar (he of the eponymous UWM business school). There is a broad and expanding base of support for the idea that the slapdash conversion proposed by Scott Walker and championed by Cross is irresponsible in the extreme and must be stopped. Things have turned so completely that at this morning’s campus budget meeting UWM Chancellor Mark Mone, when pressed, was forced to concede that he does not support the public authority proposal in its current form. Opposition to the public authority—or at least to this public authority—has gone mainstream.
The task that now faces us is to shift attention back to the catastrophic proposed funding cuts at the heart of the current crisis. We have lost just over a month debating the merits of a public authority proposal whose only discernible purpose was to distract attention from the cuts. We now know that the public authority will save at most 10% of the money that Walker is proposing to cut. It was also revealed at today’s budget meeting that, when “costs to continue” are factored in, the $300 million cut over the 2015-17 biennium is really a $348 million cut, with UWM’s share coming to $24 million per year if past formulas are followed. Additional accounting factors mean that UWM must plan for a base reduction of $26 million per year if the cuts go through as proposed by Walker. In other words, UWM alone would face a cut that is 30% larger than the maximum systemwide public authority savings touted last week by Ray Cross (viz. $20 million per year).
If last week’s JFC hearing is any indication, some Republicans in the legislature will fall back on the argument that UW campuses have cash reserves they can use to soften the blow, echoing their unfocused apoplexy of 2013. At UWM’s budget meeting of three weeks ago, Mone stated that UWM’s true cash reserves—i.e., funds not committed to specific purposes—are just under $1 million. This, for a campus whose annual operating budget is approximately $550 million. Stated as a percentage of its operating budget and rounded to the nearest whole number, UWM’s cash reserves stand at 0%. This is scandalously, accreditation-threateningly low.
There is no softening the blow. If Walker’s cuts go through as proposed, UWM and every other campus in the UW System will be irrevocably and perhaps irreparably harmed. The public authority proposal is now widely recognized for the cynical decoy that it is, and this provides those who would save the UW System with an opportunity that just a week ago seemed out of reach: to shift the focus of debate entirely to the $300 million funding cut and the excision of Chapter 36 from state law. Those are the things that have been at stake throughout this process. If they are still to come to pass, it will now have to be honestly and openly, without the public authority proposal shielding them from view.
A few weeks ago, the headlong rush toward the public authority felt like sprinting onto a diving board and praying that there’s water in the pool. Now, having seen that the pool is indeed empty, we have managed to stop short. It remains for us to turn around and confront the threat that chased us there in the first place.