With control of the state Assembly now favoring Wisconsin Democrats, all committees — including the one most closely tied to the University of Wisconsin’s fate — will see new leadership.
According to Rep. Spencer Black, D-Madison, who sits on the Colleges and Universities Committee, the speaker will appoint a new committee chair within the next two weeks.
“The new chair will be someone who is familiar with the university system and is very supportive of the university,” Black said.
He predicted the state would see a “dramatic change” from what it has seen over the last two years.
Rep. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, is the outgoing committee chair, who Black described as “very much an opponent of the university.”
According to Nass’ spokesperson Mike Mikalsen, the change in leadership will not be very significant, as whoever leads the committee will be forced to react to serious cuts coming the university’s way.
A projected budget shortfall totaling $5.4 billion over the next two biennial budgets is likely to affect the UW System like all other recipients of state funding.
“The huge budget deficit is going to dictate that that committee is not going to be able to do anything in the grand scale,” Mikalsen said.
Black also said under his party’s leadership, the committee would aim to protect the UW System from major cuts in funding in light of the shortfall.
Black said he doesn’t expect the situation to be as dire as some are suggesting and that the economy should turn around in short order. He blamed the current national economic troubles on President George W. Bush and said the situation would pick up under President-elect Barack Obama’s leadership.
“My aim will be to keep the impact of these cuts on the university to a minimum and to make sure that as cuts may be necessary, that we maintain the accessibility of the university,” Black said.
Mikalsen called the UW System “behind the times” in terms of meeting the needs of traditional and nontraditional students.
He said Nass was “hopeful that from this challenge, you will see the UW System become smarter, wiser and more efficient.”
Mikalsen said one option to make the upcoming cuts would be to merge some of the 24 UW System campuses together without cutting the number of students served.
Black said he preferred the university to decide on its own where to make changes.
“I always get nervous when legislators start coming up with ideas for cuts,” Black said.
UW System spokesperson David Giroux said the system is, in some respect, indifferent to the change and would not take for granted the support it had in either party.
“Higher education for us is not a partisan issue in any way,” Giroux said. “It is the ingredient that will determine whether we can compete in the global economy.”
Giroux added he could not think of “a single person in the Legislature who is not a supporter of higher education,” and that some had higher expectations for the UW System, as he said they should.
“If we’re not living up to those standards, than we have more work to do,” Giroux said.