Campus Connection: Walker's plan to split off UW-Madison is dead

2011-05-26T15:06:00Z 2012-05-22T17:53:56Z Campus Connection: Walker's plan to split off UW-Madison is deadTODD FINKELMEYER | The Capital Times |

Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to award the University of Wisconsin-Madison public authority status is dead, Republican officials confirmed Thursday.

Similarly, a compromise plan that was floated by Rep. Pat Strachota, R-West Bend, is no longer being considered. Walker's proposal would have given UW-Madison some long sought freedoms from state oversight by granting it public authority status and breaking it away from the UW System. The Strachota proposal would have kept UW-Madison within the UW System, but would have granted Wisconsin's flagship institution its own board within the Board of Regents.

"Those proposals have no life," says Mike Mikalsen, the spokesman for Rep. Steve Nass, R-Town of La Grange, who chairs the Assembly Colleges and Universities Committee.

"The governor tried to be visionary in his plans for UW-Madison, but it's clear the Legislature was not willing to go that far at this time," says Strachota. "So I came up with something I felt was in the middle, that everybody could live with. However, it doesn't appear that the Legislature can even come to the middle."

Mikalsen says the Assembly and Senate Republican caucuses met over the past two days and it became clear there wasn't enough support for these proposals, which were being pushed hard by UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin and the Badger Advocates, a privately funded group of lobbyists supporting the chancellor.

Martin, however, refuses to give up hope.

"It is my understanding that things are not done at the Capitol," Martin wrote in an email to the Capital Times. "As you know, major policy and budget decisions are often made close to the day of the vote. We're in the home stretch and I remain optimistic that our efforts in support of the New Badger Partnership will lead to a good outcome for UW-Madison, other System institutions, and the state of Wisconsin."

But Republican insiders say the Joint Finance Committee will pull Walker's controversial public authority proposal from his state budget in early June, when the panel meets to take up provisions related to the UW System. At that time, Mikalsen expects the Legislature's budget-writing committee to find ways to award all UW System schools some freedoms from state oversight which higher education leaders across Wisconsin have been eying for at least two decades.

"I think the good news is that Rep. Nass and others are very confident that some form of flexibilities for all campuses is going to get into the budget at that point," says Mikalsen. "So even though this has been kind of an ugly fight -- where Republican representatives have been forced to take sides between the UW System and Biddy Martin -- there is a silver lining to all this."

Strachota, who is a member of the Joint Finance Committee, says she's also committed to giving all campuses freedom from state red tape. "We have to do something to address the pending budget cuts they're going to feel," she says.

Mikalsen says Republican leaders now are focusing on figuring out what plans for freedoms from state oversight can be finalized in a very short time frame.

"It appears that legislators are indeed committed to preserving a unified UW System," says UW System spokesman David Giroux. "That's good news. Even better, a growing number of them seem supportive of new administrative flexibilities for all UW campuses. The focus is shifting now to how we implement those changes."

Not only does Walker's budget proposal contain a provision granting UW-Madison public authority status, but it also contains $250 million in cuts for the UW System over the next two years -- with UW-Madison slated to absorb half of that.

Mikalsen says Martin now is pushing back against such a significant cut for her institution.

"That fight is just heating up in both caucuses," says Mikalsen.

"Legislators are looking at how the $250 million cut might be restructured," confirms Giroux of the UW System. "Under the governor's budget, UW-Madison would absorb half of the cut, which is more than its traditional share. If UW System gets the new flexibilities, we can reduce that amount so that no campus is disproportionately affected. That's a commitment we are making to legislative leaders, and I can confirm that (UW System) President (Kevin) Reilly and all our chancellors support this approach."

Martin hasn't been bashful about backing Walker's controversial proposal to award UW-Madison public authority status. In fact, she has spent more than a year pushing hard for a new relationship between the university and state which she is calling the New Badger Partnership. Under the vision shared by Walker and Martin, 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 Wisconsin Idea Partnership that would keep UW-Madison under the UW System umbrella.

Mikalsen says many Republican leaders like a lot of what they see in the Wisconsin Idea Partnership, but he adds they want the system to come up with some accountability measures in the proposal.

"The UW System offers a lot of great proposals for flexibilities on paper for the lay person, but how you turn that into statutory language is not simple," says Mikalsen, a longtime critic of the UW System. "And we need to figure out what are the accountability measures and how do we make them binding? The good news is this is probably the most cooperative we've seen the UW System in trying to find real solutions to some of these issues. What, exactly, will happen isn't clear."

When UW System officials met with the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee in late March, lawmakers implored them to stop fighting and work out a compromise on the governor's budget proposal. But neither UW-Madison nor UW System officials felt like working together to broker a deal both could live with.

After it became clear that Walker's proposal to grant UW-Madison public authority status was on life support, Strachota started working on a plan to give UW-Madison its own board within the Board of Regents -- a Plan B which Martin and Co. quickly got behind, according to sources within the Capitol. But there simply wasn't enough backing for this idea to gain significant traction, says Mikalsen.

He says there was concern among Rep. Nass and others that if language was inserted into the budget giving UW-Madison its own board within the Board of Regents that the "governor might be able to line-item veto that into some sort of separate authority for UW-Madison. And that was just a non-starter."

"I hope this signals an end to the divisive campaign for a UW-Madison split or a separate governing board," says the UW System's Giroux. "If we can speak with one voice now, we can make some real headway."

Meanwhile, Mikalsen says Nass is hoping the Joint Finance Committee will add a provision to the budget which will put a hard cap, at 5.5 percent, on the amount tuition and fees can be increased at state campuses.

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