University of Wisconsin System president Ray Cross told the Legislature’s budget committee Tuesday that he endorses Gov. Scott Walker’s budget plan to turn the 26-campus system into an independent public authority.
But Cross told the committee that the governor’s plan to cut $300 million over two years beginning in July is “too much and too fast.”
“This proposed cut truly is serious, and I know from your public comments and your conversations with me that you agree,” Cross told the Joint Finance Committee.
The budget committee was in its second of three days of agency briefings on Walker’s $68.4 billion proposed budget for 2015-17. The spending plan calls for an overall cut of 2.4 percent over two years to make up for lower-than-projected revenues caused in part by tax cuts during Walker’s first term.
Walker’s plan calls for a two-year tuition freeze, and the governor has floated the idea of extending the freeze two more years. Lawmakers have said they don’t want to see a big jump in tuition once the Board of Regents takes over full responsibility for running the System.
Cross said the System is dedicated to making college affordable, but a four-year tuition freeze would make it hard to balance the budget.
“Four years is too long,” Cross said. “But we’ll figure out a way to do it. We’ll be doing fewer things, we’ll be doing less.”
Cross said the UW System is one of the most regulated in the country. He estimated the flexibility an authority would bring in purchasing, construction and other functions would save the system $15 million to $20 million a year.
“So not $150 million (a year)?,” asked Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton.
“No,” answered Cross.
Cross and UW-Eau Claire chancellor James Schmidt told the committee there would be reductions and changes in programs, classes or other services.
Schmidt said his campus is examining everything it does to figure out how it would best cope with the cuts.
“We need to empty our university basket of all of its contents and decide what goes back in,” Schmidt said. “Rearranging the items in the basket won’t do.”
Cross told lawmakers he is working with the Senate’s higher education chairwoman, Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, to develop goals to use in determining how much money the UW System authority would get from the state.
Cross said the benchmarks include the percentage of students who graduate in four or six years, the average number of credits to graduate, affordability and post-college success including jobs or graduate school, among other measures.
“I believe very strongly in some type of outcome-based funding,” Cross said.
The System president, who is marking his first year in office, is under pressure from some faculty and students to resist the public authority and lobby to reduce the size of the two-year budget cut. A handful of students briefly disrupted Tuesday’s hearing chanting “no cuts, no deal” and were escorted out.
A few lawmakers raised questions about whether the UW System’s $973 million “unrestricted” fund balance could be used to blunt the impact of the proposed cuts.
“To the outsider it seems like tuition has gotten out of control and the UW has been pocketing a lot of money,” said committee member Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh.
Cross said much of that money, spread across multiple campuses, is set aside to pay already incurred costs or to finance large projects.
And not every campus has a fund balance to draw on, he said.