It's fashionable to talk about kitchen-table budgeting for
government these days.
And because of a constitutional mandate to balance its budget, Wisconsin is committed by law to at least an approximation of that concept.
But that hasn't been working so well for more than a decade now, as revenues have failed to keep pace with projected spending increases, and the Legislature and governor have become more and more creative in their shuffling of funds and accounting tricks, leaving succeeding legislatures with ever-increasing gaps between projected spending and revenue.
One well they've gone to too many times is in danger of being exhausted, and Charles Pruitt, the president of the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents, is sounding the alarm. He and a former board president, Jay Smith, lay out their argument for reinvigorating the compact between Wisconsin citizens and their public universities in "Principles for Progress and Prosperity," a seven-page paper that suggests commitments from both sides.
From the UW System:
nIncreasing both productivity and quality.
nCreating new jobs in Wisconsin.
nExpanding access to higher education.
From the state of Wisconsin:
nProvding stable funding.
nAllowing greater management flexibility.
Pruitt and Smith identify some troubling trends. Wisconsin has increased its commitment to higher education at less than half the rate of the rest of the country during the past five years. In the past 30 years, state support for UW System schools has fallen from nearly half to slightly less than a quarter of the system budget.
That translates into increasing burdens on students: Ten years ago, the state subsidized 64 percent of the cost of a resident undergraduate's education. That figure is 40 percent today.
Those are striking numbers, but ones we've pointed out before: a lamentable trend, taking a university system that's state-funded to one that is state-supported ... and gnawing away at that support until it's in danger of becoming merely state-located.
Puitt and Smith aren't asking for a lot: Stable funding and managerial flexibility that will allow the system to deliver what we need: More college graduates, more research and development jobs, and even greater access to a higher education for our young adults.
They legitimately point across the Mississippi River to Minnesota, where higher education levels mean a higher standard of living. Closing that standard of living gap would mean $29 billion more in earnings each year in Wisconsin.
The affordable high-quality education offered by UW System schools has been a cornerstone of Wisconsin's prosperity for decades. Here's a question Wisconsinites should ask themselves: Might there be a relationship between Wisconsin's sluggish economy and its recent slide in commitment to its public university system?
And here's a question we might want to ask legislative and gubernatorial candidates: Are you planning to continue to chip away at our commitment to public higher education to balance the state budget?
Pruitt said he wants to have a forthright conversation about how much Wisconsin values one of the great public university systems in the world. Judging by our funding of higher education (34th per capita among the states), we're falling behind. "We need to turn that curve around," Pruitt told the Tribune's editorial board on Friday, referring to the declining portion of the general revenue dollars supporting the UW System.
"We want to get some of the people going to Madison (after the upcoming election) to address this," said Brent Smith, UW System regent from La Crosse.