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Thompson wants $95.7 million boost for UW in state budget



MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Interim University of Wisconsin System President Tommy Thompson said Tuesday that he’ll ask Gov. Tony Evers to include a nearly $100 million boost for the system in the next state budget and give him permission to borrow up to $1 billion as the coronavirus pandemic bleeds revenue from campuses.

Thompson has plenty of political capital as Wisconsin’s only four-term governor, but the request will test the limits of that goodwill as Evers and legislators grapple with widening pandemic-induced shortfalls. Thompson, ever the cheerleader, told reporters during a video conference that UW deserves the additional funds because it’s an economic engine that can pull the state out of its financial woes.

“This is a big, bold, aggressive budget that I think is going to meet the needs of our time,” Thompson said. “This budget is a bargain. We’re going to be able to produce jobs, economic wealth and opportunities for the people of the state of Wisconsin.”

Evers spokeswoman Britt Cudaback said in the email the governor was pleased to hear the request addresses some of Evers’ concerns. She didn’t specify, though, and didn’t immediately respond to a follow-up message. Aides for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald didn’t return messages.

Summary documents indicate Thompson is seeking an additional $95.7 million to help launch a host of new initiatives. Chief among them is the Wisconsin Tuition Promise, a pledge to pay up to four years’ worth of tuition and fees at any regional campus for incoming state resident freshmen and transfer students whose families make $60,000 or less. The initiative is modeled after UW-Madison’s Bucky’s Tuition Promise, which covers tuition for resident freshmen and transfer students at the state’s flagship university.

The money also would go toward expanding and enhancing online courses, forgiving teachers’ student loans, providing stipends for student teachers, adding 20 county-based agriculture positions in the Division of Extension at UW-Madison, expanding student mental health services and classes for prisoners.

Thompson also plans to ask Evers to include permission in the budget to borrow between $500 million and $1 billion in the current fiscal year to cushion pandemic-related losses.

On top of that, Thompson wants $1.2 billion in the state capital budget for renovations across the system and an additional $4.5 million for the Wisconsin Grant-UW, the state’s largest financial aid program for system students. The program was short nearly $2.3 million in 2019-20, according to the summary.

One thing the request doesn’t do is seek to lift a seven-year-old freeze on in-state undergraduate tuition. Thompson said during the video conference the time wasn’t right to ask students to pay more in light of the pandemic.

The Board of Regents is scheduled to approve Thompson’s plan on Thursday. The request next would go to Evers for consideration as his administration crafts the 2021-23 executive budget ahead of legislative approval. The outlook is dire; the state is projected to face $2 billion shortfall in the spending plan as the pandemic continues to crimp state revenue.

UW has been struggling since Republicans froze tuition rates for in-state undergraduate students in 2013 and things have only gotten more dire since campuses closed in March as the pandemic took hold.

System schools plan to reopen this fall with at least some in-person classes, but that may not be enough to get them back into the black; UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank said last week that her school expects to lose around $150 million this fall even if the full student body returns.

The system has already cut $49 million as part of a round of reductions that Evers ordered and directed employees to take furloughs. Earlier this month Thompson announced an additional $10 million in cuts. He plans to achieve those savings by laying off several dozen system administration employees, limiting out-of-state travel and supply purchases and eliminating several memberships and sponsorships.

About half of the $10 million saved would go toward a new scholarship for under-represented and under-served students beginning in the fall 2021 semester.

Evers has ordered a $250 million cut across state agencies for the current fiscal year, which began July 1. UW officials estimate the system’s share of that cut will be $69 million. Thompson acknowledged the cut is substantial but he hopes legislators will see how much the system has lost and he’s looking forward to explaining how UW is an economic driver.

Thompson’s predecessor as UW president, Ray Cross, made that same argument for years with the Republican-controlled Legislature but got little traction. Thompson, though, said the system has been “a punching bag” for too long and he’s not going to apologize for it anymore.

“I’m going to fight my darndest to get this budget through, OK?” Thompson said.

Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1

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