Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Walker UW tuition freeze order? Not big news, but still stupid + unrealistic

The last couple of days have featured headlines mentioning that Governor Scott Walker is asking the State Budget Office to continue to have a freeze on in-state tuition for the UW System schools for the 2017-19 budget. What’s odd about this is not that such a move is part of the biennial budget request, but that Walker would go out of his way to emphasize that he is doubling down after his increasingly unpopular decisions on the UW have contributed to his low approval ratings.

Now, maybe Walker and his political staff think they can make some hay recommending that in-state tuition stay frozen (I think they are very wrong on this, it makes him look as clueless as he does on the road funding issue), but if you dig into the actual instructions that came out last week, you’ll see that the UW tuition “freeze” Walker is no different than asking all agencies to do.
Agencies should prepare their 2017-19 biennial budget requests based on 100 percent of their fiscal year 2016-17 adjusted base.

-- All agencies should assume there will be zero growth in overall GPR appropriations in each fiscal year during the 2017-19 biennium, and specific program needs should be managed within this general constraint.

-- Exceptions will occur only for K-12 school aids; required basic cost-to-continue needs for the state's institutions, i.e., the Department of Corrections and the Department of Health Services institutions; entitlement and related assistance programs in the Department of Health Services (e.g., Medical Assistance), the Department of Children and Families' Division of Safety and Permanence, and the Department of Workforce Development's Division of Vocational Rehabilitation; and housekeeping adjustments like standard budget adjustments, fuel and utilities, and debt service.
Obviously, if there are no new funds coming in, this would include assuming tuition levels will remain the same. It’s interesting to me how much of a firestorm is resulting from this, because it’s a pretty straightforward budget instructions letter. Assuming a 0% increase usually allows the ability to identify which cuts or increases in revenue are needed to keep things at an acceptable level, or to see how much extra funding may be needed to maintain services.

That being said, I suppose Walker has brought a lot of this heat on himself by continuing to try to talk his way out of his failed policies on the UW System, and posing for another tuition freeze shows that he has learned nothing from the effects of those policies, including the continued exodus of top-level staff and faculty (read this recent article on the couple that is taking their talents in game development from Madison to UC-Irvine, along with the millions in research dollars that they have generated. They directly blame Walker and the regressives in the WisGOP-controlled Legislature).

What’s more intriguing to me is a passage on Page 2 of that letter, which says the budget request should account for two scenarios.
1. Meet a zero growth target in each fiscal year of the 2017-19 biennium.

2. Reduce the agency's state operations budget by 5 percent from its fiscal year

2016-17 adjusted base in each fiscal year of the 2017-19 Biennium.
Notice the second set of budget requests that are in there, the “5% cut” budget. This is part of an ALEC bill that was passed in the last Legislative session (I ran it down in this post from 6 months ago), and the cynicism behind it is obvious. If you include a 5% cut scenario, you can then use those reduced figures to claim that the budget is “balanced”, even when doing so would require massive cuts and changes in services that cause legitimate damage to Wisconsinites. It also makes it appear that there is fat that can justify a 5% cut, no matter how badly it will deform the agency and hurt services by doing so (the same type of garbage they try to pull when they claim the cuts to UW funding aren’t that much).

Also, having a set of reduced budget figures included can then make the Walker Administration and/or the WisGOPs in the Legislature seem like the good guys for “adding funding” to an agency. In fact, the level of service may merely be staying at the same (reduced) level, or even worse, being cut from where it is today. It doesn’t take much to see the GOPs are going to try to play the same type of cherry-picking that allowed them and Walker to claim a “surplus” before the 2014 elections- a claim I called out as complete bullshit at the time, but something the media refused to call out the lie and enough rubes fell for it to allow the WisGOPs to slip by in 2014. Then 3 weeks after the elections, a $2.2 billion deficit magically appeared, leading to the cuts to K-12 and higher education, along with added borrowing and other gimmicks that will produce more budget holes in this next budget.

Tose holes are where the real concern comes in. The problems with Walker’s posing policies on the UW System haven’t been because he has chosen to freeze tuition, as much the fact that it is combined with the failure to continue to fund the campuses at an adequate level, by reducing state funding at the same time. These concerns are explained quite well in the closing paragraphs of Nico Savidge’s story in today’s Wisconsin State Journal.
Nick Fleisher, a linguistics professor at UW-Milwaukee, coined the Twitter hashtag #FundTheFreeze to voice his support for affordable tuition while calling for increased UW funding.

“Continuing the freeze is good for students, and I support that,” Fleisher said.

But freezing tuition while holding funding flat — or cutting it further, as Fleisher and others fear could happen in the next budget — threatens the quality of UW institutions, he said.

“We would like to see the governor and the Legislature follow through with the other half of the equation,” Fleisher said.
Given the mess of the upcoming budget, don’t count on Walker asking for the funding required to #FundTheFreeze. Which is why voters need to act this November to get a Legislature in place that will block any further attempts to deform the UW System and further compromise its ability to generate the talent that can keep Wisconsin economically competitive.


  1. No problems with more funding for the DoC though... "required basic cost-to-continue needs for the state's institutions, i.e., the Department of Correction,..."

    1. Yep, telling that some things get "cost-to-continue" increases, and some don't. Priorities, you know.