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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Scott Walker's plan to give the University of Wisconsin System more freedom would allow it to impose unchecked tuition increases and potentially price students out of college, one of the system's toughest critics and student leaders said Tuesday.
The proposal would cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the system's budget but give more autonomy to the governor-appointed Board of Regents, which oversees the system's 26 campuses, on a wide range of issues, including raising tuition without Legislative approval starting in 2017.
Walker's spokeswoman, Laurel Patrick, said the plan gives UW institutions the flexibility to adjust tuition quickly, making the system more competitive and market-based. But Sen. Stephen Nass, a Whitewater Republican who serves as vice chairman of the Senate's universities committee, said the proposal would expose the middle class to giant tuition spikes.
"I don't trust the unelected Board of Regents to prioritize the plight of middle-class families," Nass said.
The Associated Students of Madison, UW-Madison's student government organization, issued a statement saying tuition increases would be inevitable under Walker's plan.
"UW System administration needs to assure students ... that the ... institutions will not increase tuition as a way to absorb these cuts on the backs of students after this budget," ASM Vice Chair Derek Field said.
UW System President Ray Cross has acknowledged each institution will feel the $300 million cut but contends more autonomy is an opportunity to operate more efficiently. System leaders believe it's in no one's interest to "simply jack up" tuition, Cross said in an email to The Associated Press on Tuesday.
"What is to everyone's advantage is for us to, as the governor has proposed, work hard on transforming our operations and costs," Cross said.
Walker, a Republican mulling a 2016 presidential bid, is trying to solve a projected $2 billion deficit in the 2015-2017 budget. His plan for UW calls for cutting the system's funding by $300 million over the next two years. In exchange, the governor would give the system more independence from the state.
Under the plan, system leaders would control employee salaries, tenure and procurement contracts, among other things. Future state funding would come through a block grant fueled by sales tax revenue with annual increases tied to inflation. Right now, the state money that goes to the system is a combination of different taxes. The governor and Legislature set the payout amount during budget negotiations every two years.
Walker wants to keep a tuition freeze that the Legislature imposed last year in place until 2017. Then lawmakers would have no ability to limit increases. The system had raised tuition 5.5 percent each of the six years leading up to the freeze.
The governor has said the block grant mechanism would provide the system with more financial certainty and more autonomy would help the system run better.
The proposal is far from a done deal. The Legislature's finance committee will spend months revising Walker's budget before sending it to the full Senate and Assembly for approval. Walker's fellow Republicans control both chambers.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said he hadn't discussed Walker's plan with fellow Republicans. But he said he worried about making such deep cuts without giving the system the flexibility to deal with them.
A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said Fitzgerald hasn't discussed the plan with his caucus, either.
Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, the finance committee's co-chairwoman, said she thought Walker's plan is a market-based concept. But she said the committee would discuss how to ensure the system remains accountable and faces consequences such as the state reasserting control if tuition spikes.
"I think it's a good trade-off if there's accountability and transparency and not a misuse of authority," Darling told the AP. "There would have to be measures in place to make sure we don't have the out-of-hand increases in tuition. That's the pressure we'd have to put on."
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