Just when you think things can't get any more bizarre in the UW-Madison vs. UW System family feud ....
UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin emailed leaders across the UW System Wednesday night to say she was "dismayed" by a press release put out earlier in the day by the Badger Advocates, a privately funded group of more than a dozen lobbyists advocating at the Capitol on behalf of Martin and her vision for a new business relationship between the state and Wisconsin's flagship higher education institution.
Phone messages left Thursday morning with Brandon Scholz, a former state GOP executive director and a lobbyist who is leading the Badger Advocates, were not immediately returned. His name was listed as a contact person on the news release. Scholz told me earlier this year that no UW-Madison funding or taxpayer dollars are being used to back the Badger Advocates, but he refused to name the private donor or donors backing the nonprofit organization.
The Badger Advocates' press release praises Martin for examining ways to deal with impending budget cuts and rips UW System leadership for not getting on board with the proposal in Gov. Scott Walker's budget to grant UW-Madison public authority status and break it away from the UW System.
"Martin has spent several months educating lawmakers, organizations and Badgers across the state on why Wisconsin needs to make a major change in the way our colleges and universities are governed," reads the press release. "In contrast, UW System fought the proposal fearing a loss of bureaucratic control."
The release later adds: "From the day UW System hastily wrote up its five page outline to counter the governor's budget proposal for UW Madison, the approach and strategies couldn't be more different. Martin worked closely and diligently with the Legislature, and listened. On the other hand, UW System sought to maintain the status quo and oppose real reform."
And then there was this: "The UW System has approached the entire process as an effort to protect a bureaucratic fiefdom."
Several insiders at the Capitol have been appalled at the unwillingness of those associated with both UW-Madison and the UW System to sit down and work through their differences. Others have noted a good deal of mud slinging in recent weeks and wonder if the relationship between UW-Madison and the rest of the system has been damaged beyond repair.
And yet, after being made aware of the press release put out by the Badger Advocates, Martin sent an email to members of the UW System's Board of Regents, and other chancellors and leaders across the system. The email was forwarded to me by a regent.
"I saw the Badger Advocates' press release for the first time this evening after it was made publicly available," Martin writes in her email. "I am dismayed by it. I had no idea it was in the works. It is ill-timed and problematic, to say the least."
It appears ill-timed because Capitol insiders have been saying there simply isn't enough support to keep Walker's proposal to split UW-Madison from the system in the 2011-13 budget. As soon as Friday, the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee will take up items related to the UW System's budget. The Assembly and the Senate will ultimately need to pass the budget, but the committee's actions are an agenda-setting step.
Publicly, Martin has said she's "accepted the improbability" that Walker's controversial proposal will pass and that she's hopeful all system campuses will receive some freedoms from state oversight to deal with significant budget cuts. But behind the scenes, some in the Capitol say that UW-Madison, the Badger Advocates and Walker's team continue to push a version of their original vision. However, the fact Martin is distancing herself somewhat from what had been her support group suggests there is some movement.
Several Republican representatives have said they're interested in devising a plan that will grant all UW System campuses certain freedoms and flexibilities from state oversight. But it's not yet clear where the red tape will be cut or how the Joint Finance Committee will accomplish this, and some UW System leaders and Republican representatives not on the budget-writing committee are expressing concerns that something unexpected "might blow up" in the 11th hour.
No matter what ultimately happens, the JFC is expected to keep Walker's proposed cut of $250 million in taxpayer support for the UW System in the 2011-13 budget. Originally, UW-Madison was slated to absorb half of that hit. However, it now appears UW-Madison will be granted a more proportional share.
Those wanting to watch the JFC in action can visit the WisconsinEye website.