For the last several days, Republican lawmakers have lambasted University of Wisconsin System administrators after the Legislative Fiscal Bureau published a report showing the system is in possession of $648 million in cash reserves. Legislators have called for a freeze on tuition and a revision of UW System funding in the state’s biennial budget. They also questioned the competency of university administrators, the UW System Board of Regents and UW System President Kevin Reilly.
Arguing that the System had not been transparent with its finances, Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, said, “If you’re not honest with the Legislature, you’re not being honest with taxpayers, because that’s who we represent,” according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Criticizing the UW System, Senate President Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, said, “You could make the case they’ve been stiffing the students for half a billion dollars … They’ve been putting [tuition money] in a slush fund and crying like a bunch of dead banshees for more [tax money].”
The lack of restraint and aggression displayed by these legislators was eye-opening; they certainly wasted no time before switching into attack mode. Of course, we are grateful for Kooyenga’s brief civics lesson, but we’re still not entirely sure what the scream of a dead banshee sounds like, nor are we interested in finding out. Allow us to put this discussion in context.
The LFB tallied up program revenue appropriation balances across the UW System and arrived at a grand total of $1.04 billion. They subtracted inflexible sources of revenue, such as federal funding, gifts and grants, under the assumption that System officials have little control over the use of those funds. They were left with $648 million in balances – $414 million of which came from tuition. According to the report, System administrators have already made plans to spend $441 million of the total balance. This leaves a $207 million surplus in cash reserves.
We understand the System could have been more transparent with its finances; students, in particular, deserve a thorough explanation of these program revenue appropriation balances, especially those due to tuition revenue. Until System administrators clarify the financial situation at hand, it is difficult to pass further judgment. Despite the efforts of lawmakers to paint this systemwide budget surplus as a “slush fund,” it is quite possible that the funds will be put toward investments that will benefit UW System schools in the future.
At a more basic level, it seems that Republican lawmakers are objecting to the program revenue appropriation balance on principle, as if it were inherently bad that the System is operating with a budget surplus. Yet, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with this – administrators are responsible for the long-term financial stability of the UW System. Legislators cannot expect UW schools to operate on an austere budget year in and year out. To serve students effectively, the System must have a certain amount of financial flexibility. It seems that these politicians expect Kevin Reilly and the Board of Regents to spend state money conservatively and bring back the change at the end of the year. System administrators are not running an errand to the grocery store – they are trying to provide quality higher education.
Reilly, pointing to the System’s volatile funding situation and the declining level of state support, said, “More folks on the campuses have gotten used to the notion of ‘We’d better save up some money, because the long-term trend is we’re going to have to do more for ourselves,'” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. He makes an important point: A significant factor in the System’s decision to set money aside is the fact it has faced sizable funding cuts at the state level – funding cuts voted for by a number of the legislators who now attack administrators for “stiffing” the students.
There is a blatant hypocrisy in all of this: Lawmakers who slashed funding for UW schools now claim they are fighting for the interests of students as they attack Kevin Reilly and the Board of Regents. Can they really think students miss the irony in all of this? Or are they too busy trying to score cheap political points to care?