- Associated Press - Thursday, February 12, 2015

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Gov. Scott Walker said Thursday that he would be open to extending a tuition freeze at the University of Wisconsin System beyond the next two years he’s currently proposing, offering the idea as yet another option to help sell his reorganization plan to a reluctant Legislature.

Walker wants to make the university a public authority detached from state oversight and laws starting in July 2016, which he and UW leaders say would save it money. But to help sell the idea to his fellow Republicans who control the Legislature, Walker is also calling for freezing tuition the next two years while cutting funding to the university system by $300 million.

Some Republican lawmakers have expressed concerns about giving up oversight of the university, including the ability to cap tuition increases. There’s also been bipartisan opposition to the $300 million cut, which would amount to 2.5 percent of the university’s total budget and 13 percent of the state aid it receives.

Since unveiling his plan last week, Walker has said he’s open to working with lawmakers to lower the cut and possibly start the organizational changes sooner than mid-2016, with the hope that savings could be realized faster.

University leaders said starting the public authority model giving UW more autonomy would save money on such things as procurement and hiring in the long run, but wouldn’t help make up $300 million over the next two years.

On Thursday, Walker said in a conference call from his trade mission to London that he’s also open to holding future tuition increases to the rate of inflation.

“I don’t have a specific proposal,” Walker said. “I’m willing to work with lawmakers on it.”

Walker’s proposal would make future aid payments to the university a block grant taken from sales tax revenue. It would increase annually based on inflation. Walker said it made sense to cap tuition increases no greater than inflation as well.

“I think there’s a very reasonable way to do this going forward,” he said.

The idea has the support of Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. He told reporters Thursday that he didn’t like the fact that Walker’s proposal would give UW the unchecked authority to raise tuition as much as it wanted over two years.

Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, of Kenosha, said it would be “outrageous” to extend the tuition freeze in the face of the $300 million cut. He said the cuts are so deep the UW System will need decades to recover.

“It’s great to have a tuition freeze if you invest in the university,” Barca said.

Walker, and the Republican-controlled Legislature, froze tuition at UW the past two years. That came after it had gone up an average of 5.5 percent the previous six years.

UW System President Ray Cross said in a statement that system leaders appreciate concerns about the cost of a college education. He said he was encouraged to hear legislative leaders are open to giving the system more flexibility and discussing an “appropriate funding level.”

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Associated Press writer Todd Richmond contributed to this report.

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Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP

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