Of deals, devils and details: Budget reality check

The politics of public authority for UW-Madison seem to be unraveling. People talking to key Republican lawmakers and staffers are hearing things like “non-starter” and “no way”. The Chancellor has ginned up a lot of support on campus and in Madison, but statewide politics will almost certainly kill this proposal.

Still, this deal is a monster and monsters don’t die so easy. Let me hand you a silver bullet for your pistol in case you meet this one in a dark alley:  This deal with Walker has been sold by appeal to vague flexibilities. The details we do know, in fact, are mostly serious downsides, and many people aren’t even aware of them. Consider the budget implications of these two tidbits that I’ve picked up talking to people in the know:

  • In previous budget cuts, we’ve taken 40% of the total cut to UW-System,  but this cut is 50-50 between us and System. That’s an extra $30 million base cut annually. No proposal for gains from ‘flexibilities’ shows any hint of how that could be made up. The projections shown at the Faculty Senate and elsewhere basically conceal this fact: They project our budget as if it were starting from where we are now, not from $30 million less. How long would it take to recoup that amount in the base budget, if we can?
  • We would no longer have a state pay plan. That means that our block grant would not include any money for future pay increases. Any. Ever. As salaries increase, we’d have to cover that from our own new monies. I’m told that a 1% raise for the whole campus costs about $5 million right now, including benefits. So, a modest 3% raise would mean generating an extra $15 million per year in perpetuity. Chart out a set of small raises over 10 years on a spreadsheet!

Bottom line: the current proposal guarantees us cuts, far deeper than if we stay with System. And nobody has been able to say how the proposal would give us significantly more money, now or in the future. Far worse, there is not a whispered promise of no future cuts. The Virginia model contained the kinds of guarantees that Wisconsin’s proposal lacks. And the legislature still came back and sliced them to ribbons.

There’s a way forward here, one probably workable for the legislature and System: Much of the flexibility that the chancellor wants — most of which would be uncontroversial — can be achieved without public authority, without the devastating consequences outlined above.  We need a concrete set of flexibilities we can agree on, within System and acceptable to the legislature.

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2 Responses to Of deals, devils and details: Budget reality check

  1. PG says:

    I don’t completely understand the part about “no longer have a state pay plan.” This seems to indicate that, unlike the recent past, where the state simply chose not to provide funds for faculty/staff pay increases, the block grant would specifically preclude such increases. Is this correct? What is the statutory language that spells this out? I haven’t heard this particular criticism of the public authority before, and it seems like an important one, if valid.

  2. Author says:

    That is correct. We have been included in the pay plans through the relevant chapter of state code. The new ch. 37 would remove us from the state’s HR system generally and that this implies no pay plan. The current version of the pay plan chapter — I haven’t personally checked it, but a professional DID and confirms this — does not mention any pay plan for the proposed public authority.

    For now, that’s no big deal in practice, since we aren’t getting pay plans anyway. But someday, that will change and we want to get that money for all employees.

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