Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher

Out of balance

The Wisconsin Legislature passed the 2015-17 biennial budget this week. The Senate went first, in order to accommodate the Mexican vacation plans of Sen. Frank Lasee, who early Tuesday sponsored an amendment repealing the state’s prevailing wage law, which in turn brought the final two Republican holdouts in the Senate on board. The Assembly passed it Wednesday, with 11 Republicans joining all Democrats in opposition.

The final hope for tenure, shared governance (on which do yourself a favor and read this immediately), and indefinite status in the UW System now lies with Scott Walker’s veto pen. Likewise for Milwaukee Public Schools, which face an uncertain future in the wake of the passage of the OSPP/MPS takeover plan. Rep. Dale Kooyenga, the plan’s cosponsor, was visibly drunk on the floor of the Assembly during the debate leading up to its passage. [Update: if you suspected Kooyenga’s LWI ravings were misleading and economically baseless, you were right!] Kooyenga is also a vice co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee. On Monday, he sheepishly claimed not to have understood the scope of the open records law evisceration he happily supported last Thursday. What exactly does it take to disqualify yourself from a spot on the Legislature’s most powerful committee?

In the absence of a Walker veto, Democratic legislators could demand the undoing of these budget items in exchange for supporting the public financing plan for the new Bucks arena, which will need fairly broad Democratic support to pass. But they would have to present a credible threat of being willing to let the Bucks leave. There may be more hope for a Walker veto.

Meanwhile, yesterday in Madison the UW System Board of Regents approved the System’s 2015-16 budget. Initial media reports Monday highlighted the differences in base budgets from 2014-15 to 2015-16 shown in Table A-1 of the Regents agenda. In fact, those differences mask a plethora of adjustments beyond this year’s cuts; for example, UWM Chancellor Mark Mone explained in an email Monday evening that UWM’s figures include an $18 million correction for federal financial aid that “has no impact on UWM’s actual revenues for operating purposes.” The allocation of the cuts across campuses, shown on p. B-3, amounts to between 2% and 4% of most campuses’ 2015-16 operating base budgets.

More ominous is the proportion of each campus’s 2015-16 operating budget that will come from the one-time use of cash balances. I have compiled those figures in the table below, with campuses listed in descending order according to the percentage of their 2015-16 operating budget that will disappear the following year. Look who’s no. 1.

UW System budgets, 2015-16
Campus Operating budget Use of balances %
Milwaukee 623,594,306 30,924,709 4.96%
Colleges 123,210,483 6,081,695 4.94%
Whitewater 241,445,297 11,500,000 4.76%
Eau Claire 202,420,333 8,679,660 4.29%
Stevens Point 206,237,084 8,162,955 3.96%
Oshkosh 248,763,292 8,517,647 3.42%
Parkside 88,385,378 2,848,000 3.22%
Green Bay 115,320,807 3,002,500 2.60%
Stout 186,193,939 4,333,252 2.33%
Platteville 166,101,513 1,742,860 1.05%
Superior 62,588,915 446,309 0.71%
River Falls 120,412,533 500,000 0.42%
Madison 2,710,038,526 10,000,000 0.37%
Extension 201,153,961 650,000 0.32%
La Crosse 199,000,147 0 0.00%
System Admin 10,643,174 0 0.00%
Systemwide 131,786,217 34,966,460 26.53%

Finally, System President Ray Cross secured a small victory by getting the Senate to treat $25 million of UW’s 2016-17 funding as a lapse. In other words, the UW System will get a $25 million funding increase in the second year of the coming biennium, but it will immediately give the money back to the state. The benefit for UW is that the System’s base funding level heading into 2017-19, on paper, will be $25 million per year higher than it otherwise would have been. That’s equal to a 20% restoration of this biennium’s $125 million-per-year cut.

With all due credit to Cross, however, this was not necessarily a difficult concession for Senate Republicans to make. In particular, lapses don’t count for purposes of the Legislative Fiscal Bureau’s calculations of structural deficits going forward: whereas the UW System gets to treat the lapsed $25 million as if it’s going to be spent the following year, the LFB and the politicians who tout its projections treat it as if it’s *not* going to be spent. The UW System lapse gets added to over $700 million in other lapses assumed in the second year of the coming biennium, all of which combines to paint an unrealistically rosy picture of the state’s fiscal health (and even under these manipulated assumptions, the state still has a $500 million structural deficit). The likelihood that the UW System will ever actually see this additional $25 million in yearly funding seems low indeed.

So, to recap: System leadership, through its “new partnership with the legislature“, has secured a largely symbolic commitment on future funding and nothing on tenure and shared governance, which are now at the mercy of Scott Walker. As campuses sprint towards the fiscal cliff, the one-time use of cash balances will keep many of them suspended, Wile E. Coyote-like, in mid-air. The coming year will be an exercise in looking down.


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