Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Oct. 10
More borrowing for roads isn’t the answer
Gov. Scott Walker wants lawmakers to authorize the state to borrow $150 million this year because - surprise, surprise - there’s not enough money to pay for all the road projects and maintenance needed in Wisconsin. So borrowing is OK but it’s not OK to raise more money from taxpayers or find more sustainable revenue sources for transportation. And this is fiscally responsible how?
The Department of Transportation has said it is delaying work on dozens of road projects over the next six years, including five major projects that are important to the state’s infrastructure and economy, as Craig Thompson of the Transportation Development Association noted in an op-ed on this page on Friday. Thompson also warned that, “What is somewhat misleading about that is the two-year delay is a best-case scenario. If the next budget follows the precedence of recent state budgets, those delays will be indefinite. In other words, it will take additional funding in the next budget just to limit those delays to two years.”
The reason the state doesn’t have that money is because of funding cuts that Walker and GOP lawmakers made this summer, Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb told legislators in a letter last week.
Some of the 225 projects outlined by the department are segments of larger projects, the Journal Sentinel reported last week. For instance, widening I-39/90 from the Illinois state line to Madison is listed as 32 separate projects. Nonetheless, the new DOT list means dozens of projects will be delayed in the coming years.
And Walker’s solution? Borrowing. With all the good work and the studies being done around the country on finding other ways of paying for roads, Walker’s best solution is to borrow more. But that’s just a short-term stopgap that doesn’t address the real and long-term problem, that GOP lawmakers in Madison and Washington seem unable or unwilling to grasp.
As we, Thompson and many others have said time and again, traditional sources of funding aren’t providing the necessary revenue. As vehicles have become more fuel-efficient and as some people decide to drive less, there is less in gas tax revenue. At the same time, many of the nation’s - and the state’s - roads are reaching the end of their serviceable life.
Other options are needed. Transit needs to be looked at much more seriously, as do other revenue options, such as vehicle miles traveled and registration fees based on vehicle size and even toll roads, as state Rep. Robin Vos (who does seem to understand the problem), has suggested.
Walker proposed a significant amount of borrowing for roads in his initial budget, which the Legislature wisely rejected. Charging the future for today’s needs is not always the best route to take, as the GOP is notoriously fond of telling Democrats in Washington.
The infrastructure is crumbling and the current model simply is no longer able to pay for new projects or the maintenance to keep commerce and families moving. Legislators and the governor need to put aside their blinders and come up with some real solutions.
The Journal Times of Racine, Oct. 11
UW schools are for Wisconsin students first
The University of Wisconsin-Madison. The words “of Wisconsin” are right there in the name, just in case anyone needed reminding that the UW System schools are funded by the taxpayers of Wisconsin primarily to serve students from the Badger State.
It seems that the UW System Board of Regents needs reminding.
UW-Madison is poised to enroll hundreds more out-of-state students, starting with next year’s freshman class, after the Regents on Friday approved a request to waive the limit on non-resident students at the campus.
The Regents approved UW-Madison’s plan to lift the cap for the next four years, while enrolling at least 3,600 Wisconsin resident students each year, in a nearly unanimous vote. One vote was cast in opposition.
UW officials have pushed for the plan, saying it is necessary to meet Wisconsin’s workforce needs, the Wisconsin State Journal reported. Critics have said the proposal is aimed at increasing tuition revenue from out-of-state and international students who pay a higher rate to attend the university.
Count us among the critics.
In a letter to Chancellor Rebecca Blank and UW System President Ray Cross, Associated Students of Madison leaders questioned how the plan would affect transfer students and those from Minnesota, who won’t be counted in the minimum of in-state students proposed in the plan (Wisconsin and Minnesota have a reciprocity agreement, which enables students from one state to attend schools in the other state at the in-state tuition rate). The student government officials said the university should focus its attention on supporting Wisconsin students, rather than looking elsewhere.
“Before we start changing the composition of our incoming class, we should be working to increase the number of students staying in the state of Wisconsin, and the ways in which we can help high schools prepare students to attend our university,” they wrote.
We agree with the ASM, and with those who say that lifting the cap will do little to add to Wisconsin’s workforce, because non-resident students are much more likely than residents to leave the state after they graduate.
ASM officials and others raised practical concerns about the proposal also, saying it could lead to increased class sizes.
Chemistry professor Judith Burstyn told the State Journal she understands UW-Madison needs to increase revenue so it can reduce the impact of recent state budget cuts. But Burstyn said her department already struggles to accommodate all of the students who must take its introductory courses, which are prerequisites for dozens of majors.
“If we let more students into the university . we won’t physically have space for them,” she said.
UW officials have said they aren’t planning major increases in the size of the student body, estimating the plan will likely result in 100 to 300 more students.
But that’s cold comfort to the in-state students who want to graduate in four years but cannot because they couldn’t get into a required class or classes.
Mike Mikalsen, chief of staff to Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, said UW-Madison already receives more than enough applications from Wisconsin students.
“This is all about the money,” Mikalsen said. “That is not the Wisconsin Idea.”
Some UW System schools might have trouble finding top students, but the flagship campus in Madison should not be one of them, Mikalsen said. The problem, he said, is that UW-Madison doesn’t do enough to recruit top in-state students.
“They fail to keep the best and brightest here,” Mikalsen said.
Blank and Cross have said their plan calls for more aggressive recruiting efforts of those students, but Friday’s actions by the Regents leave us skeptical as to how much additional effort will be put into luring Wisconsin’s top students.
Asked whether Gov. Scott Walker supports or opposes the UW-Madison proposal, spokeswoman Laurel Patrick did not say, though she said Walker believes the university should enroll “the same, or larger, number” of in-state students going forward.
We agree with the governor on this one. The top priority at any University of Wisconsin school should be Wisconsin students.
We thought that was obvious.
Leader-Telegram of Eau Claire, Oct. 8
UW officials need to counter ‘reserve’ flak
UW System officials aren’t exactly dominating in the court of public opinion regarding the $250 million cut and tuition freeze they’re absorbing in the current two-year state budget, and at least some of it is their own fault.
Recently the UW System announced it finished the fiscal year with $923.9 million left over, down from $973.3 million the year before.
Simply looking at that number leads one to believe that despite all of the hand-wringing and doomsday scenarios coming from UW campuses, they’re still awash in money and perhaps could absorb even more cuts. Several comments to the Leader-Telegram Facebook page were less than sympathetic after the story with that number was published.
In fairness, UW System President Ray Cross quickly noted that only about $145 million of that $923.9 million isn’t obligated for any purpose. That lower figure amounts to a reserve of less than 2.5 percent of the UW System’s $6 billion operating budget.
UW-Eau Claire officials report that only $3 million of its $39.25 million fund balance isn’t designated for upcoming obligations. At UW-Stout in Menomonie, $8.4 million of its $14.1 million fund balance is already earmarked to meet upcoming expenses, officials said.
Budget stories confuse many people and bore many more. That’s why it’s very important for UW officials to be out in front of this story. As UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt said previously, the fund balance at any given time is a snapshot, not at all an accurate figure for what the state campuses have lying around. Money to pay vendors, debt service on campus buildings, financial aid to students, and many more obligations must be met with “reserve” funds that ebb and flow during the course of the year.
It’s like having $1,000 in your checking account and a $980 credit card bill on the kitchen table. Those who believe they have $1,000 to do with what they please shouldn’t have a checkbook … or a credit card.
This “fund balance” story isn’t going away. The Legislature and Gov. Scott Walker are keeping a tight grip on the UW System and won’t loosen it unless they’re convinced the campuses truly need to raise tuition or be given more state aid to maintain quality. Otherwise, they’ll continue to wonder if there aren’t sufficient funds stashed in various accounts that could be used to prevent tuition and fee increases that up until the past few years were rising rapidly and forcing students to take on more debt.
Cross and individual campus leaders need to put detailed information out to the press and public ahead of the fund balance release dates, complete with where the earmarked “reserve” funds will be spent. Many may ignore this effort, but without a strong, detailed, pro-active response, the average taxpayer will simply focus on the $923.9 million figure and look at the UW officials’ appeals for more money as unnecessary at best and greed at worst.
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