It's typical for non-fiscal policy to be shoved into the state budget at the last minute, but the policy items are usually at least somewhat predictable. They are often provisions that have long been sought by a monied special interest or an ideological group.
But who cares if the tiny Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism uses two rooms at Vilas Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison?
Apparently state Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee. He and co-chair Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, introduced a motion prohibiting the UW System Board of Regents from allowing the nonprofit from occupying any facilities owned or leased by the UW. The motion, which the committee passed early Wednesday morning in wrapping up a marathon budget session, also prohibited any UW employees from doing work for the center.
Currently, the center has a "facilities use agreement" with the UW-Madison School of Journalism, in which it gets access to two rooms in exchange for collaborating with UW professors to teach J-School students journalism skills and for hiring UW students as paid interns.
In an email to the Romenesko media blog, executive director of the center, Andy Hall, expressed shock over the move.
"We were blindsided by the action of JFC, the Legislature’s budget-writing committee. Oddly, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism doesn’t receive direct state funding. Its $400,000 budget is supported by private foundations, individuals and news organizations."
Greg Downey, director of the J-School, says the proposal, which will be part of the budget that the Legislature takes up in coming weeks, threatens a valuable relationship that has benefited the university community and the state.
"As written it would seem to broadly and recklessly infringe on our academic freedom in terms of research, teaching, and service. Our faculty and staff regularly collaborate with outside organizations on media-related projects in terms of research, teaching, and service."
The source of the idea to target the Center for Investigative Journalism — whose articles are often used by newspapers throughout the state, including the Cap Times — is unclear. However, since its inception several years ago, some on the right have grumbled that the nonpartisan group is largely funded by George Soros' Open Society Institution. Soros is a billionaire businessman and philanthropist who supports many liberal causes.
Nygren may have some hard feelings toward the center. In 2011, an article by the center's Kate Golden described a push by the lawmaker to make changes to auto insurance law favored by the insurance lobby. The article highlighted the donations Nygren had received from insurance interests.
Later, Golden wrote a column describing a battle with Nygren over open records. The center had asked for all correspondence between the legislator and constituents over the proposed insurance bill. Nygren complied, but redacted the names of those who had sent letters about the legislation. After much debate between the two sides, Nygren finally released the names, which showed that most of the people contacting him to support the law were insurance agents.
A spokeswoman for Nygren did not respond immediately to a request for comment.