- Associated Press - Friday, June 10, 2016

MILWAUKEE (AP) - University of Wisconsin System officials withheld their annual budget from the public until just before regents voted on it, saying the document wasn’t quite final. But time stamps on the spending plan show it was finished last week, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Friday.

The regents approved the $6.2 billion budget during a meeting Thursday at UW-Milwaukee. System officials posted background materials on every agenda item by Monday except for the budget.

System spokesman Alex Hummel told reporters in an email Wednesday that the spending plan wouldn’t be posted until regents began discussions Thursday because President Ray Cross’ office and the regents’ officer were continuing to finalize the information. The document was posted at 2 p.m. Thursday as discussions began; the budget was approved 90 minutes later.

Time-stamp data on the budget shows it was last modified on June 3, the Journal Sentinel reported (http://bit.ly/28quWfY ).

Hummel maintained in an email to reporters on Friday afternoon that the regents and Cross’ offices were still finalizing and reviewing budget documents leading up to Thursday’s meeting. He noted that he provided reporters with advance copies of the budget Thursday morning. Hummel did not mention in his email, though, that the documents were provided on condition no stories could be published until discussion began at the meeting.

“In the interest of presenting and sharing the most accurate information, the President’s office elected not to post materials until that process was fully complete,” he said.

Cross and regents President Regina Millner told the newspaper that they’re worried about releasing complex information before it’s formally presented because it could be cherry-picked in advance and not presented with clarity in a highly political environment.

Republican legislators have been furious with the UW System since word broke three years ago that it was carrying hundreds of millions of dollars in unused fund balances while raising tuition. Gov. Scott Walker froze undergraduate tuition in the 2013-15 and 2015-17 state budgets. The current state spending plan also slashed $250 million from the system.

“It’s very important that we not only have transparency, but that we have clarity,” Millner told the newspaper Friday. “Clarity requires presentation by the staff, availability of staff to be questioned, and for the regents to have an opportunity to discuss and ask their questions.”

Millner added that the budget itself may have been finished, but the public presentation by system Vice President for Finance Julie Gordon was still being worked on. She said withholding documents from the public until the moment discussion begins may become routine.

Bob Dreps, an attorney who specializes in open records cases, said holding back the finished budget because the presentation wasn’t ready isn’t a clear violation of the state’s open records law but “the public’s right to know what they’re doing doesn’t vary with the political winds.”

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Information from: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, http://www.jsonline.com

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