Reviewing the bidding on the public authority? And then what?

A few weeks ago, few would have expected that the bottom of the Public Authority proposal would collapse so rapidly, so unceremoniously.

The first sign of real stress were a chain of newspaper editorials from around the state criticizing the Governor’s “end-run” around the legislative process by including this monumental proposal in his budget. Newspapers ranging from Sparta News (on the left) to Beloit News (right) and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel all basically repeated the same points. Only the Walker-boosting, Wisconsin State Journal continued to tout the wonderful “flexibilities” inherent in the Public Authority.

The proposal really started to sag at the UW’s budget hearing at the Joint Finance Committee. Senator Luther Olson indicated his displeasure and possible opposition to the budget proposal. He quickly followed his chiding of Martin and to a lesser degree, of Kevin Reilly with a press release stating his opposition to the proposal as a whole and that it was part of the budget.

Other legislators continued to fall off of the bandwagon. Senator Kapanke (La Crosse) knew which way the wind was blowing and denounced the PA. His newly announced opponent, JFC member, Rep. Shilling followed with a more vehement condemnation. Senator Darling (Shorewood), Co-chair of JFC was non-committal but also faces a recall and was unlikely to go out of her way to displease her constituents at the Milwaukee campus.

One could say that the exact time of death for the PA was when the (other) Co- Chair of Joint Finance Robin Vos, said on a Sunday morning news show that he thought the proposal would not be taken up by the committee.  He reiterated that view later in the week but did a little bit of a back-track after that.

Others key legislators quickly followed with press releases such as that Friend of UW-Madison, Rep. Steve Nass and his committee Vice-Chair, Rep. Krueger. They all said essentially the same thing: the proposal is dead (or soon will be) and it’s time to start over with the System’s proposal or some other fix.

But here’s the interesting point: Governor Walker has not said ONE THING in defense of his plan. Think of his exertions on everything from collective bargaining to his appointment of the Marinette County Register of Deeds. On this Pretty Big issue, he has fallen silent. By his silence, he has sent a message that it’s OK, no hard feelings, legislators can tell their local campuses that they saved the day and preserved the UW System.

And that leaves Biddy Martin politically stranded with a proposal that has little viable political support (absent of her Badger Advocates lobbying team) on one end of State Street and diminishing support on the other.

Her options are not great:

  1. Take the WIP (Wisconsin Idea Partnership) and run! Martin is nothing if not sincere when she needs to be. Can she embrace Reilly & the Regents, say that they had the better idea and get some fraction of what she wanted to start with? (Of course, she will not get the right to run her own show but that wasn’t going to happen anyway, was it?)
  2. Beg for our “fair share” from the System. Under the Public Authority model, the Madison campus would get $30 million less than we would have if we had stayed as part of the System. The question is, if the PA deal does not go through will the System use the same method of allocating funds or will they put the Governor’s plan into place (wherein we pay $30 million for severance) and give the “loyal” campuses a few extra million? The System may want to punish Madison and have this penalty in store for us. Changing their mind will be a tough case for Martin to make.
  3. Get some control of the run-away train.  Martin & Walker have (to continue the metaphor) set the train in motion but now they have largely lost control. Will a special legislative committee be formed? That would be highly unusual. Will it go to Rep. Nass’s committee? He’d love to have it because it would give him and his aide an opportunity to kick the campus around for weeks, if not months. Will it be rolled over to a Legislative Council Committee after the session is over in March, 2012? That might put something on the agenda in the next session but their work usually ends in a dead-lock. Whichever process unfolds, it is likely that many legislators, who are not Friends of UW-Madison, will have a major role in the development of the new proposal.
  4. Drop it. Don’t go for the half measure, the lipstick on the pig, the embrace of the Regents, etc.  Just admit that it didn’t work out this time but there is another day and contrary to the earlier predictions of catastrophe as a result of the budget cuts, we’ll somehow make do. Not very dramatic but is a relatively simple course to take.
  5. Get fired. At the April 20th meeting of the Madison Rotary Club, Martin said, “I’m willing to lose my job over this.” That may come to pass.

What about the rest of us? Unlike the Martin/Walker proposal for a public authority that was negotiated in secret and then run through the JFC without a single hearing on the proposal, these other legislative processes are more transparent, fluid and thus, subject to the influence of faculty and staff. This influence can be realized if we collectively decide to act and not merely limit ourselves to criticism after-the-fact.  Some of the mechanisms for action are in place and may with real limitations be effective. Others may need to be created or enhanced. Wisconsin University Union, PROFS, TAA, etc., can function as independent voices and as advocates for the campus that are not constrained by the managerial authority. But they must be used and supported.
These next few months will be critically important and the outcomes will shape the campus for years to come.

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