When the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee finally gets around to taking up the University of Wisconsin System's budget, faculty, staff and administrators at campuses across the state will be holding their collective breath.

Leaders within both UW-Madison and the UW System have been spending seemingly every waking moment since mid-February pushing their proposals for how to break public higher education free from state oversight so campuses can operate more efficiently and effectively.

The problem is that UW-Madison and UW System officials have been unable to get on the same page to pitch a unified message. So although several Republican representatives have indicated they're open to devising a plan that will grant all UW System campuses certain flexibilities from state oversight, it's not yet clear how much red tape will be cut or how JFC will accomplish this feat.

The state's Republican-led budget-writing committee is scheduled to meet Friday at 1 p.m., and these UW-related issues are on the agenda. (To watch the JFC in action, visit the http://www.wiseye.com/">WisconsinEye website.)

But with all of this attention on dueling proposals, some are questioning whether UW-Madison and UW System leaders have taken their eye off the proverbial ball. Gov. Scott Walker's budget proposal slashes $250 million in state aid to the UW System over the 2011-13 biennium. That's a big number. Yet somewhat amazingly, this fact has garnered scant public discussion.

"You have to get back to the basics here and concentrate on that number," says Tom Loftus, who has served on the UW System's Board of Regents since June of 2005. "You can't just accept that number. Because even if you get flexibilities, that will help some campuses, some years, some of the time. But the important thing is keeping the base amount you receive from the state as high as possible."

Loftus knows a thing or two about how the political game is played. He was in the Wisconsin Legislature as a Democrat from Sun Prairie between 1977 and 1991, serving as Speaker of the Assembly those final eight years. His point is that whatever funding hit an agency takes will reset the level at which all future funding conversations -- in this case, for the UW System -- begin in subsequent budget cycles.

"You wonder about the focus of the lobbying here," says Loftus. "That $250 million cut, that's what the focus should be on now."

Sadly, the proposed $250 million cut to the UW System over a biennium wouldn't be unprecedented. Former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle slashed state aid to the UW System by that same amount while filling a projected $3.2 billion hole over the 2003-05 biennium. In an effort to make up for that funding shortfall, UW-Madison's tuition and mandatory fees were jacked up 32.5 percent over a two-year period - skyrocketing from $4,426 for the 2002-03 academic year to $5,866 in 2004-05.

Both UW-Madison and UW System officials have promised they won't raise tuition anywhere near that much to make up for state funding cuts this time around, but tuition and mandatory fees for an in-state undergraduate at UW-Madison for the 2010-11 school year already were $8,987. Next year, those costs will jump north of $9,500.

The non-partisan http://legis.wisconsin.gov/lfb/2011-13%20Budget/Budget%20Papers/740.pdf"> Legislative Fiscal Bureau reports that if Walker's cuts in state aid go through as expected, it will mark the fourth time in the past five state budgets that the UW System has taken a hit in taxpayer support. The LFB notes that "if the proposed base budget reduction were approved, total GPR base reductions from 2001-03 through 2011-13 would total $351.4 million or 35 percent of the UW System's 2000-01 adjusted base budget."

In 2010-11, the state funded just 17.6 percent of UW-Madison's budget -- a figure which will soon plummet again.

"It's become almost a norm that we just accept these massive cuts for public education," says Allie Gardner, who is chair of the Associated Students of Madison's Student Council, which is the student government on the UW-Madison campus. "I think it's a national crisis and we're just following suit -- which isn't something that Wisconsin has always done. We've always been different, but not anymore."

Gardner says she'd love to see more students out protesting these perpetual hits to higher education but admits it's surprisingly difficult to energize the masses on this topic. There were more than 180,000 students enrolled across the UW System this past school year.

"I think it's going to take our student government and those at other schools in the system across Wisconsin building some unity and really moving forward with campaigns and mass mobilization of students to say this is not acceptable," she says. "It's going to take outreach from ASM to our student body to make people more aware of this issue."

But this time around, most of the lobbying efforts went into pushing hard for autonomy from state oversight.

UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin and Walker crafted a controversial proposal behind closed doors to award UW-Madison http://www.secfac.wisc.edu/senate/2011/0404/2263.pdf">public authority status. Before hammering out the details with the governor, Martin had spent more than a year pushing hard for a new relationship between the university and state which she has been calling the New Badger Partnership. Under the governor's proposal in his 2011-13 budget, UW-Madison would be overseen by its own board of trustees and receive more autonomy from the state to raise tuition, manage its own personnel system, construct buildings and make purchases.

But UW System leadership -- and every other head at every other state campus -- has opposed what they see as preferential treatment for UW-Madison, arguing that all system schools desperately need these same freedoms. They've proposed an alternative to Walker and Martin's plan called the http://www.wisconsin.edu/wip/">Wisconsin Idea Partnership that would keep UW-Madison under the UW System umbrella.

"I don't think we would have minded spending a little more time on the $250 million hit," says Charles Pruitt, who is president of the Board of Regents. "But the Regents have been talking for a long time at our meetings about the importance of state reinvestment in the university system as a focus of economic growth going forward. I wish we would have had the chance to spend a little more time talking about that cut, but this was a big idea put on the table by the governor and we are certainly respectful of his interest in thinking about big ideas."

Regent David Walsh, a Madison attorney, adds: "The tragedy here is we have a $250 million cut we're facing and no one has had a discussion about it because we have been distracted by this other issue."

All indications are that when the JFC meets to take up UW-related budget items it will strip the public authority element for UW-Madison from Walker's budget. What happens next is anyone's guess, although it appears some legislators would like to call for a study of the pros and cons of breaking UW-Madison away from the UW System.

If the budget writing committee finishes its work in the next few days, the full Legislature could begin debating the budget in mid-June. After it passes the Republican-controlled Senate and Assembly, Walker must sign off. The budget takes effect July 1 and runs through the end of June, 2013.

About the only thing that's certain once all is said and done is higher education in Wisconsin will take another significant funding cut.

"This is coming from 20-20 hindsight, but I do wish there had been a call out to students to advocate on behalf of themselves and other students for funding for the UW System," says Beth Huang, vice chair of ASM's Student Council. "I know http://unitedcouncil.net/">United Council (of UW Students) did some lobby days but I really wish that instead of just pushing for the New Badger Partnership, that the university administration or even ASM itself would have called upon students to advocate for funding as an investment in higher education in this state."

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