By Julie Lassa, State Senator of Wisconsin’s 24th District
Over the past few months, I’ve been hearing from a steady stream of constituents about their concerns regarding various provisions in Gov. Scott Walker’s budget. Many people have expressed their opposition to his cuts to education, including his proposal to cut the University of Wisconsin System’s budget by $300 million.
A couple hundred people attended the budget listening session that Rep. Katrina Shankland and I held at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Their comments echoed those that we have heard from citizens throughout the state. They’ve spoken out about the damage that kind of cutting would do: fewer courses, less faculty and staff, important research canceled, student work-study positions eliminated. They have also raised concerns about the impact these cuts may have on the UW System’s role as a vital economic engine to both the state and to local communities.
Given the huge public outcry, Republican legislators on the Legislature’s budget committee were under tremendous pressure to distance themselves from the governor’s proposed cuts and to “save” the UW System. But when the GOP members introduced their UW System budget amendment, it didn’t look like much of a rescue.
Their proposal did reduce the budget cut, but only to $250 million — just 17 percent less than the governor’s cut. Funding was cut for environmental research and education in addition to research into K-12 education. And the budget eliminates statutory support for tenure and shared governance for UW faculty members, a move that will make it even more difficult for the university to retain quality educators.
These proposals certainly will do nothing to stop the bleeding at campuses like UWSP that are already losing quality staff and struggling to cope with the cuts they’ve absorbed from the governor’s previous budgets. UWSP has already lost faculty who were leading groundbreaking undergraduate research projects in fields like paper sciences and nanotechnology.
Unfortunately, there will now be even more incentive for such faculty members to find jobs elsewhere — and when they leave, they will take their research grants with them. And while the GOP members of the budget committee found money for certain projects, like $124,000 to keep a paper machine running at UWSP, the campus stands to lose millions in other funding.
For example, JFC completely eliminated a major source of funding for UWSP’s Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Technology, which will take a $440,000 hit as a result.
Thanks to past budget cuts, students in many majors often find it difficult to get into the courses they need to graduate on time. Every extra year they spend in school keeps them out of the workforce and costs them and their families another $7,000-plus in tuition at campuses like Stevens Point and La Crosse.
This trend contributes to the student debt crisis, and is putting a UW education out of reach for more and more students. Another historic round of budget cuts promises to make this situation even worse. And although the budget currently includes a two-year tuition freeze, once that freeze is lifted, tuition rates may skyrocket.
It would be bad enough if this damage were a necessary response to poor economic conditions, but it’s not. The state has a $2.2 billion budget deficit because Governor Walker and the GOP majority in the Legislature chose to give massive tax breaks to corporations and refused to take back our federal dollars that would strengthen our state’s health care programs, a move that would have saved taxpayers $360 million in this budget alone. Now our world-class university system is being cannibalized to pay for it.
All of this spells economic disaster for Wisconsin. Whether it’s making college more expensive, missing out on new business development spurred by university research, or contributing to our state’s scarcity of a skilled workforce, the damage the GOP budget does to our university system today will hurt our state and our people for many years to come.