Gov. Scott Walker lent his support Monday to an embattled plan to decouple the University of Wisconsin System from state control with added state protections against tuition hikes for Wisconsin residents, but a key lawmaker still sees no hope for its passage this session.

“I think it is dead in our caucus,” said Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, who’s co-chairman of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee. “I believe there will be enough support to remove it.”

In a letter to the committee Monday, Walker asked it to preserve the public authority called for in his original budget proposal rolled out in early February but tie both block-grant funding for the System — which would transition to a more autonomous public authority in 2016 — and tuition increases for state undergraduates to the consumer price index.

Nygren called the funding and tuition cap proposals “good ideas” but said he still opposes the switch to a public authority because it’s happening without adequate time and understanding among lawmakers, the public and UW.

UW System president Ray Cross said in a statement that he welcomes the governor’s support for the public authority but requested changes to the proposed tuition-setting model.

“Many legislators and stakeholders agree that this kind of price control is not compatible with the agile, market-driven and competitive entity the state needs us to be,” Cross said.

Under the tuition proposal, first proposed by Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, tuition increases for in-state undergraduates could not exceed the annual increase in the index.

Walker proposed two changes to his proposal for funding the new UW System Authority. The block grant funding model would remain but would start in 2017-18, a year earlier than originally planned. It also would be doled out monthly in 12 installments rather than quarterly, as originally proposed.

Walker’s original budget also called for significant changes to the System’s mission statement, often known as The Wisconsin Idea, stripping it of the search for truth among other things. He called to keep the language untouched in his letter Monday, which Cross said he approved.

The public authority and the funding model have generated intense debate. Faculty and student groups have called on Cross to withdraw support, citing a lack of study and lack of evidence it will actually save money.

Faculty and staffers have also voiced serious reservations about a provision to strip faculty tenure and shared governance — two cherished protections — from state law, which would happen under Walker’s proposal when the System would switch to a public authority.

Some members of the UW System Board of Regents, which would continue in its current role under the authority, have voiced concerns about the new model, as well. Regent David Walsh of Madison, chairman of the public authority that oversees UW Hospital and Clinics, called the authority proposed for the System in need of much more study and said the block-grant funding mechanism equates to “fairy dust.”

Regents responded to faculty concerns about tenure and shared governance by promising to preserve them exactly as they are in state law until new recommendations are made about the provisions by task forces appointed and overseen by the Regents.

The move to ensure tenure and shared governance irked key Republican lawmakers who said the Regents should not be given greater autonomy if they intend to operate the System the same as it is now. Nygren recently said the authority model was “on life support” and then declared it dead. He reiterated that stance on Monday and said Walker’s letter likely will have little effect.

Cross has remained supportive of the public authority, saying in an email in early January that it could be the System’s only shot at autonomy for 20 or 30 years.

In a letter last week to the Joint Finance Committee, he repeated his support, calling for the committee to retain Walker’s call for greater autonomy in budgeting, human resources, capital planning, construction, financial management and procurement.

“With your support, our campuses will have the flexibility we have long called for to manage our resources responsibly and effectively while also being held accountable to the state,” he wrote in the letter, which was signed by every chancellor in the System. “We stand ready to be accountable for the flexibilities you provide.”

Walker’s budget calls for cutting $300 million from the System and extending a freeze on resident undergraduate tuition to July 1, 2017. In exchange the System would be free of state oversight starting in July 1, 2016.

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Reporter, Wisconsin State Journal