Remember when the learned Republican legislator Steve Nass called University of Wisconsin officials “educational crooks” and “con artists?”
Nass, now a state senator, was chair of the Assembly’s Committee on Colleges and Universities when he launched into one of his many tirades attacking the UW, that time because the UW System was sitting on a surplus of funds back in the early days of the Scott Walker administration.
The rural Whitewater career politician insisted System leaders were hiding tens of millions of dollars in a “slush fund” while proposing tuition hikes and asking for more state dollars.
Nass and many of his fellow Republicans went into full attack mode over news that a surplus existed, and they made plans to cut the state’s already meager support of the System to bring these scoundrels to task.
I remember John Wiley, the UW-Madison chancellor at the time, pointing out to me that the surplus was somewhat illusional because a lot of that money was earmarked to pay for building projects on the university’s various campuses. He explained how the total cost of buildings isn’t paid at the outset but in stages as the projects are completed.
The real story didn’t matter because this was a made-to-order political cudgel, a perfect foil for Nass’ inflammatory mouthpiece, research assistant Mike Mikalsen. While most of Nass’ colleagues were more restrained about the alleged motives behind the surplus, Nass, at Mikalsen’s urging, had no compunction over calling UW administrators “crooks” and “con artists.” Tactfulness has never been one of this legislator’s strong points.
Well, here we are some 10 years later, and we’re finding out that having a surplus and keeping it might have been a very smart thing. Several campuses in the System are finding themselves facing significant deficits.
In fact, the UW’s Board of Regents was informed this week that 10 of the 13 UW schools are dealing with structural deficits heading into next fiscal year. UW-Parkside, UW-Platteville and UW-Oshkosh are among the schools facing the most significant budget challenges. Madison is one of the few that doesn’t face a year of red ink.
Without any increase in state funding, the System is projected to reach a $60.1 million structural deficit by the end of 2023-24, according to System President Jay Rothman.
Oshkosh has already announced plans to cut about 200 non-faculty staff and administrators this fall, while furloughing others. The cuts amount to about 20% of university employees. Platteville and UW-Parkside will also furlough their staffs as both schools try to make up for budget shortfalls.
But this is what happens when politicians come up with easy solutions and pander to voters by claiming surpluses are bad. Most famous was when Lee Dreyfus did that back in 1979, promising to send a budget surplus back to voters if they elected him. Four years later the state was seriously in the hole and had to raise taxes, saddling his successor with the problem.
No one will accuse this Legislature of acting responsibly. It’s most embarrassing decision was the $4 billion Foxconn giveaway. But it’s fumbling with the finances of the UW system has to come in a close second.
Its demand that the System spend its surplus to make up for cuts in state aid and tuition freezes have been major contributors to the crisis. Yet, the GOP’s leaders saw fit to cut yet another $32 million from the system because it supports diversity and equity programs.
At least we now know who the real con artists are.
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. email@example.com, 608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.
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