As Gov. Jim Doyle officially announced $225 million toward higher education in his budget Tuesday, University of Wisconsin System officials began working on a strategy to convince lawmakers that the investment is worth every penny. The governor's proposed two-year budget would grant the UW Board of Regents $21 million to completely fund its proposed Growth Agenda for Wisconsin, which is a compilation of projects across UW System schools aimed to increase enrollment, four-year college degrees and financial aid, among other things. "The first step is understanding the details [of the budget]," said UW System spokesperson David Giroux. "Really the most important step [is] … convincing [lawmakers] that this is a plan that will benefit taxpayers … in every corner of the state." The majority of the proposed $225 million, according to Doyle's staff, would be used by public and private universities to re-estimate debt, pay continuing operational costs and offset rising fuel and utilities costs. Another part of the $225 million would also create an office in charge of the Wisconsin Covenant program, which promises eligible high school students admission to a UW System school and financial aid. Doyle budgeted $44 million in financial aid for the program. Although the Board of Regents would have control over tuition increases depending on staff and other expenditures, Doyle recommended a "modest" 4 percent increase annually. Doyle also proposed granting $10 million to UW-Madison to help retain high-demand faculty, who may take graduate students as well as millions of dollars in grant money to other institutions. "That's a separate pot of money … that's really important, especially for UW-Madison," Giroux said. "In many cases, it's a very good investment for the university." Hoping to aid staff retention, Doyle proposed expanding health insurance benefits to all domestic partners of state employees. According to Doyle staff, the additional benefits would be covered by current fringe benefits. The benefits were proposed by Doyle in the last budget and removed by a Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee, citing a lack of funding. State Rep. Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, who sits on the bipartisan Joint Finance Committee this year, said the UW System will need to show it deserves the large increase in funding. "The governor has unveiled a lot of new spending programs," Suder said. "I'm not sure the taxpayers can afford all of them." Suder said the UW System has not proved its fiscal responsibility in the past and added that funding needs to be appropriated on the basis of need, not want. Giroux said outside interest in the UW System will help persuade officials in the coming weeks. "We must make a clear voice that will deliver a return on investment for every taxpayer," Giroux said. State Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Praire, said he would be willing to allocate more funding to the UW System because it generates jobs and economic growth. "$225 million is not too much," Hebl said. "We have to continue to finance education so we have top quality students. … An educated workforce is Wisconsin's future." Some lawmakers and university officials have advocated for increased spending because the UW System took large cuts in the previous two biennial budgets: $90 million in 2005-07 and $250 million in 2003-05.
JEFF SCHORFHEIDE/Herald photo