UW to ask for additional money and an end to tuition freeze

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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — University of Wisconsin System leaders plan to ask Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators to lift a tuition freeze and give the system about $40 million in new money in the next state budget.

The Board of Regents is expected to approve the request at a meeting this month. System President Ray Cross gave reporters a preview of the request that asks Walker to allow the regents to set tuition and calls for an additional $42.5 million in state aid.

Cross said the new money would be used to shorten the time to graduation, expand programs that offer high school students college credits for completing certain courses and build more robust student internship programs.

The request asks for no new money to fund fringe benefit adjustments or utility bills. System officials don't anticipate a need because about 1,800 fewer system employees are on state health insurance, Cross said, choosing instead to get on their spouses' plans. He also noted that the system has lost about 1,200 employees.

"It's not an excessive request," Cross said. "It's time to invest. Let's send a message that this is really important."

The last four years have been a time of tight finances for the system. Walker and Republican lawmakers froze in-state undergraduate tuition in the 2013-15 state budget after it was found schools were sitting on massive reserves while raising tuition year after year. Lawmakers extended the freeze for another two years in the current budget and cut $250 million from the system.

Walker has called for the tuition freeze to be extended for another two years and has warned the system that it shouldn't expect any additional state aid in the next budget. The governor is considering more money for the system if schools meet performance benchmarks, but he hasn't said what schools would have to accomplish to win more money or how much funding would be available.

The UW System's budget is the highest it has ever been, Walker spokesman Tom Everson said Tuesday, and the next state budget automatically adds $50 million in base funding.

Joint Finance Committee co-chairman Rep. John Nygren said Tuesday he looks forward to working with colleagues, the UW system, and stakeholders to preserve the quality and value of Wisconsin's public institutions.

"The state budget goes through a similar process every biennium. The governor always proposes his budget before it's sent to the Legislature for consideration and modifications," Nygren said.

Cross said the system remains an economic engine for the state and deserves more money, supporting his argument with data that class sizes are increasing and class availability is decreasing, which translates to students paying more because it takes longer to graduate.

Other components of the request include:

— $454.6 million for building maintenance, renovation and construction. About $100 million would go toward maintenance. A new mechanical engineering building at UW-Platteville would be the only new structure; the rest would be for renovations. Cross said the current state budget allocated $86 million for buildings.

— New statutory language allowing the regents to issue bonds backed by program fees to fund projects. The state building commission would release the bonds in amounts requested.

— Allow the system to purchase academic-related items without going through the state Department of Administration.

The next state budget is a long way off. State agencies must submit their requests to Walker by mid-September, and he will release his version of the budget early next year. After that, it must go through a legislative committee before the full chambers, and ends up on Walker's desk, who can use his veto power. The whole process will likely wrap up next summer.


This story has been corrected to show that the request asks for no new money to fund fringe benefit adjustments or utility bills, rather than to fund pay raises, fringe benefit adjustments or utility bills. Pay raises will be considered at a later date.


Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at http://twitter.com/trichmond1

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