Emails reveal more details about Wisconsin Idea misfire

New records reveal more of the behind-the-scenes thinking on Gov. Scott Walker's now-nixed proposal to remove the Wisconsin Idea from state statute.

Gov. Scott Walker’s budget office was prepared to defend removing the University of Wisconsin mission statement, known as the Wisconsin Idea, from state law, according to newly released records.

The proposed changes have since been removed from the state budget, but the initial proposal caused a public outcry shortly after the budget was released in early February.

Walker’s office and his Department of Administration released the documents Friday in response to a State Journal records request made three months ago. They include previously released emails from UW officials asking the budget office as early as Jan. 20 — two weeks before Walker introduced his 2015-17 budget — and again on Jan. 29 to restore the Wisconsin Idea language.

The changes, including the elimination of phrases “to improve the human condition” and “the search for truth” as part of its mission statement, still made it into Walker’s budget proposal on Feb. 3, but within days stirred an uproar.

Walker initially described the change as a “drafting error” but later acknowledged his administration botched the rewrite, part of a broader attempt to spin off the UW System as its own authority. Walker’s budget director took responsibility for what he called a “miscommunication” with Walker’s office.

The records show that on Feb. 4, as reporters asked the governor’s office about the changes, budget analyst Nathan Schwanz, who had rewritten the mission statement in December, told Walker’s policy director Waylon Hurlburt that the change “did not come from the UW.”

“(Walker chief of staff Eric Schutt) had indicated their mission should be short and to the point — 3 or so expectations of the state, some cans and cannots, and that’s it,” Schwanz wrote, reflecting wording suggested to him by another member of the budget team.

Walker didn’t include all of those details in an explanation that he issued in February, in which he acknowledged Schutt had told the budget team “to keep this process simple because the main focus was on providing the maximum amount of flexibility under the new authority.”

“Unfortunately, when my office told the budget staff to keep it simple, they took that to mean that we only wanted workforce readiness language in the mission when we really wanted the language added to the existing mission statement,” Walker said in the Feb. 5 statement.

In Schwanz’s response to Hurlburt, he also provided talking points from a memo that he had prepared for budget director Michael Heifetz.

The undated memo included responses to questions such as “Why were changes made to the UW’s mission and purpose statement?” and “Why is the Wisconsin Idea removed from the statutes?”

“The governor is recommending revising the UW’s mission statement of purpose to reflect its change to a public authority,” Schwanz wrote.

“To make the UW’s mission and purpose statements consistent with this change, permissive portions and statements were kept while dictatorial and repetitive portions were removed. Within this framework, the Board of Regents will be able to adopt any statements of purpose and mission they see fit.”

In response to why the budget removes the Wisconsin Idea, Schwanz wrote: “The Wisconsin Idea does not exist in the statutes or on paper alone. It exists in the hearts and minds of Wisconsinites across our great state which, in turn, drives the UW’s teaching, research, outreach and public service to move Wisconsin forward. The Governor’s budget preserves this and provides the framework for the UW to better continue these efforts.”

Department of Administration spokesman Cullen Werwie said the records “confirm the timeline of events outlined in the past.”

The Legislature’s budget-writing committee has since removed the Wisconsin Idea changes from the budget, which is still being amended by lawmakers. Republicans who control the Legislature say they also plan to remove the proposed authority from the budget.

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Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.