Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker puts basketball billionaires before universities

Gov. Scott Walker has $250 million for the Milwaukee Bucks owners, but not Wisconsin universities.

Gov. Scott Walker has $250 million for the Milwaukee Bucks owners, but not Wisconsin universities.

When money is tight, tough choices are made. In the face of a $2.2 billion shortfall, Wisconsinites are finding that out the hard way as Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-led legislature play barber with the state budget.

Political backlash spared K-12 education funds, but Wisconsin universities aren't so lucky. Walker initially wanted to lop $300 million from the state's university system, though the Legislature whittled it down to $250 million. The cuts would be one of the largest in the country this year, and it comes in a state that already spends less on colleges than its Midwestern peers,  making Wisconsin the Mississippi of the Heartland.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison will absorb the majority of the cuts “because we can,” says Madison Laning, chair of the Associated Students of Madison. But that doesn't make it easy to swallow.

“It served as a very big shock, especially with UW-Madison having a tuition freeze the past two years, as well as not an increase in funds in the last biennium,” Laning says. “You can tell that our university is kind of struggling.”

Laning and Carmen Gosey, a fellow member of the student group, are bracing for increased class sizes, department mergers and reduced course offerings. Laning questions whether or not the African American studies degree she's chasing will be attainable after the cuts kick in next month. “I may not be able to get a certificate in four years, because there might not be enough classes offered.”

Still, Laning says other schools will be hit worse, as they don't have the resources – a strong alumni base and federal research grants.

Prepping for an estimated $7.6 million hit, UW-Eau Claire began offering buyouts to senior staffers in March. At the time, the school estimated 325 employees would apply for the cozily worded “voluntary separation incentive program.”

Coincidentally, while the state looks to swipe $250 million from its universities, Walker wants to give the same amount to the billionaire owners of the Milwaukee Bucks for a new arena. As Minnesotans know, using taxpayer coin for sports stadiums is as popular as Budweiser in Miller Park. It remains to be seen if the Bucks deal will happen. But team owners Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry are playing the same fund-it-or-we'll-flee card the Vikings did.

For Walker, who's all but declared his presidential aspirations, it might be bad political timing to push for public arena cash. But accompanying the college cuts are a stable of policy moves the union buster could crow, such as stripping profs of tenure and gutting the university system's shared governance laws, which give students and staff a greater say in school decisions.

It's all part of the recall survivor's plan to “transform higher education for the future by empowering leaders, protecting taxpayers, and promoting long-term sustainability,” Walker's press secretary tells Politico.

Although Laning's realistic about the belt-tightening, she's not happy about higher ed's place in the current budget/arena deal mix.

“Just seeing where higher education is in that list of priorities is concerning for students.” 

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