Why Walker Had to Cut UW Funding
His presidential ambitions left him with no other option.
It was just a year ago that Gov. Scott Walker was pushing the legislature to pass a second round of tax cuts, this one totaling about $500 million. Democrats carped that it was nothing but an election year gimmick and his gubernatorial opponent Mary Burke said the state couldn’t afford it.
State Sen. Dale Schultz, the rebellious Republican who did not run for reelection, predicted Walker was “recreating the problem” of the deficit he inherited. “The tax plan sets us up for a very bad time in the future,” Schultz said.
In less than nine months the prediction came true. By September the Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimated that state now faced a $1.7 billion budget deficit.
Sen. Rob Cowles (R-Green Bay) and then Senate President Mike Ellis (R-Neenah), part of a group of Republicans who raised concerns that Walker’s tax cuts went too deep, said the report validated their fears. “A number of us were concerned,” Ellis said, “But we (Republican senators) voted for it.”
In retrospect, Walker must have been very worried about getting reelected, so worried that he was willing to give himself a huge budget problem in his second term. Just as his naysayers predicted, and as Fiscal Bureau figures suggested was inevitable, Walker has been forced to slash state spending, and has stirred up a hornet’s nest of opposition from defenders of the state’s universities.
Walker has proposed a $300 million or 13 percent cut in state funding for the UW System, the largest such cut in history. He’s also proposed cutting state aid to the K-12 schools by $127 million, cutting Senior Care by $15 million (though the full impact of that cut could be $100 million), cutting 66 positions from the state Department of Natural Resources and using a new funding formula for state voc tech colleges that could cut their funding. Walker has also proposed the state borrow $1.3 billion to finance the transportation fund, which means an unprecedented 23 percent of taxes for roads will pay interest on bonds by 2016.
Walker has always had impeccable timing politically, but not this time. His announcement about the UW cuts came just after his proposal to help pay for a new NBA arena, leaving critics to charge he was cutting education to fund a sports palace for rich owners and players.
Adding insult to injury, we learned Walker and his staff wanted to harpoon the century-old “Wisconsin Idea,” to obliterate statutory language saying the mission statement of the UW System is “to extend knowledge and its applications beyond the boundaries of its campuses” and that “Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.”
All of which has put Walker in a very uncomfortable — and ironic — position. He has been outed by Politifact as a “pants on fire” liar for claiming it was “a drafting error” that led his staff to strike such language as “the search for truth” from the UW System mission. And he has opened the door to sniping that a college dropout is slashing funding for colleges and decimating the scientific staff in the state Department of Natural Resources.
The change in the UW mission statement was a huge overreach — and political miscalculation — by Walker. It has provided ammunition for UW-Madison chancellor Rebecca Blank to rally influential alumni, students and their parents to oppose the funding cuts. The proposal “puts at risk the investment that generations of Wisconsinites have made to create a highly ranked university in our state,” she has declared.
Yet none of this had to happen. All of it was unnecessary, and driven by Walker’s vast political ambitions. Back in 2013, Walker could have accepted the expanded federal funding for Medicaid, as eight other Republican governors did. Instead he rejected it, thereby giving him a stronger platform from which to run in the Republican presidential primary, but leaving him with a $500 million hole to fill.
Had Walker accepted the money, he could have made the second tax cut to help assure his reelection and would still have had $500 million more to play with, making the UW budget cut unnecessary while even leaving room to avoid cutting K-12 funding or reduce the amount of borrowing for the transportation fund. And if Walker hadn’t been so distracted by the huge amount of time he’s devoting to running for president, he might have reconsidered his ham-handed attempt to change the UW System mission. The situation couldn’t be clearer: Personal ambition is the cause of his current problems.