Steven Walters
The State of Politics

How Thompson Is Handling Legislators

Former governor warned by Legislature not to include tuition hike in UW System budget.

By - Feb 1st, 2021 11:29 am
Tommy Thompson. Photo courtesy of the UW System.

Tommy Thompson. Photo courtesy of the UW System.

Tommy G. Thompson has spent more than 30 years giving orders – as Assembly Republican leader, governor, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, candidate for President and U.S. Senate, and now as UW System president.

That’s why Tommy watchers were surprised when Thompson said last week he was going to honor this order from legislative leaders: The next UW System budget will include no increase in resident tuition, although there has been no increase for eight years.

In an online Wisconsin Policy Forum interview, Thompson quietly listened as UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank and UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Mark Mone pleaded for an increase in resident tuition. The former governor said those chancellors have “absolutely solid” arguments for raising resident tuition, but then explained why it won’t happen.

“I have to get a budget through (the Legislature). Sometimes, you’re dealt a hand – you got to know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em,” Thompson said. ”I have been told in no uncertain terms by the leaders of the Legislature that, if I come in with a tuition increase, the (UW System) budget it’s not going anywhere.

“I’ve got to balance a tuition increase with getting the next budget through. I’ve got too many outstanding items in that budget to allow that to happen….

“I’ve got to win. The UW System requires it.”

The irony: Thompson, as governor from 1987 until 2001, imposed his will on the Legislature. Now, the post-Thompson generation of Republican Party leaders are telling the ex-governor what he won’t get in the 2021-23 budget the Legislature will pass by July 1.

Thompson said the more than $90 million the UW System had to return to the state treasury last year to help cover pandemic-related costs “really hurt.” It forced layoffs, furloughs and canceled some academic programs.

According to a Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) summary, the UW System asked Democratic Gov. Tony Evers to include $2.5 billion in general-fund cash for the next two years – an increase of about $133 million, or 5 percent. Evers will give the Legislature his budget on Feb. 16.

Thompson also has another big ask for Evers and legislators: Allow the UW System to borrow between $500 million and $1 billion, and issue bonds to pay that money back, to replace revenues lost because of COVID-19.

New initiatives Thompson is pushing for total about $96 million, and according to an LFB’s summary, include these items:

-$39 million to expand the Tuition Promise, which waives tuition and fees for four years for students from families with household incomes of $60,000 or less. Thompson wants the Promise, begun in 2018 on the UW-Madison campus, offered on all campuses.

-$15 million to offer new ways for Wisconsin adults who enrolled on UW System campuses, but who withdrew for personal or other reasons, to earn those degrees.

-$12.7 million to reward individual UW campuses who achieve benchmark goals in student retention and other areas.

-$10 million for more counseling, mental health and behavioral health programs.

-$9 million for systemwide freshwater studies on local and global water research. The programs would be coordinated by the UW-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences.

-$5 million to let the UW System, state Department of Corrections and Technical College System develop a program that offers classes to prison inmates that may reduce recidivism and help them get jobs after they are released.

-$3 million to forgive student loans for new Wisconsin teachers of special education students; Science, Technology, Engineer and Math classes, and in rural areas.

Before Thompson’s declarations, Blank and Mone said resident tuition should be raised for the first time in eight years.

“My salaries aren’t frozen. My expenses aren’t frozen. This doesn’t make sense,” Blank said. “I should be setting tuition for in-state students at about the same rate as the schools around us. Minnesota is about $3,500 above us, Illinois about $3,000.”

Mone said UW-Milwaukee’s mission is “urban research” and, unlike the Madison campus, 88% of its students come from Wisconsin. But, “We have had state budget cuts that are unsustainable in light of a tuition freeze. We’re getting the pincer cut on both sides.”

As System president, Thompson had the last word. Any move to raise resident tuition “is a battle for another day.”

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at

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2 thoughts on “The State of Politics: How Thompson Is Handling Legislators”

  1. Mingus says:

    An educated work force is needed for economic growth. Republicans would rather intentionally work to diminish the skills of the work force as part of their political theater rather than have a skilled work force that would attract job creating enterprises.

  2. kaygeeret says:

    I never understood why the Republicans, starting in Walker’s regime, began attacking the University system.

    It has world renowned programs and wonderful schools.

    Due to the repubs, great scholars have left as well as research money.

    I still do not understand what they are doing and why!

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