Scott Walker made himself into a presidential candidate with his victory over the minions of Madison, Wisconsin. Despite the howling demonstrations inside and outside the state capital building, Walker succeeded in passing ACT 10. It stripped the public sector unions of their most powerful organizing tool — the dues check-off, by which unions fees were automatically deducted from paychecks.
Walker has also benefited from a marked improved in the states job climate since he became governor in 2011. He ought to be reaping the political rewards of that success. But, he isn’t resting on his laurels. Walker has ambitious plans to revamp the University of Wisconsin higher education system. But opposition to his college reforms have helped push his state approval ratings into a skid.
The University of Wisconsin system tries to educate 181,000 students at 13 community colleges and 13 four-year universities including the famed University of Wisconsin in Madison. Its annual budget comes to 5.6 billion dollars. The system was shaken in 2013 with a report of a massive slush fund system that rose from a quarter billion to over a billion dollars, according to different estimates. Part of the surplus/slush money came from 5.5% annual tuition increases over the six prior years.
Republican State Representative Steve Nass, chair of the Assembly Colleges and Universities Committee,called system officials “educational crooks” and “con artists.” The system president Kevin Reilly was forced to resign. Walker called initially for a tuition freeze but that then began to talk of reforms to reshape the entire system. It seemed like an opportunity to revamp the self-serving academics and administrators who are at the very heart of the Wisconsin Democratic Party.
In February of this years, Walker proposed changes for the 2015-17 budget which would free the university system and its 35,000 employees from direct state government control. The university system would become a semi-autonomous public authority. Walker would reduce direct state aid by 150 million a year, he argued, in return for this new system which would give the colleges and universities the flexibility to reform themselves. “If they were able to get out from underneath the thumb of statue bureaucracy, they could be very effective in saving money for the UW System,” argued Governor Walker.
Walker, referring to the reform, which curtailed collective bargain rights for state employees, called the plan an “Act 10 for the UW System.”
Walker notes that at a salary $144,000 a year, he receives less compensation than 407 University of Wisconsin system employees. Moreover he suggested that he hoped to see additional teaching hours for full-time faculty, a reduction in the number of administrators and an enhanced relationship with local business for the two-year colleges.
Politically, Walker’s plan to freeze tuition and get more output from underworked and overpaid academics seemed appealing. But he’s met considerable opposition from Republican state representatives who don’t think the colleges are capable of reforming themselves. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), insisted “that autonomy doesn’t make sense because regents don’t want to make changes and they could use their new authority to dramatically increase tuition.”
Walker’s plan isn’t dead yet but it’s on life support. Prominent Republicans suggest that he will have to compromise and reduce planned cuts to higher education to win final budget approval. It’s not clear how the outcome will effect Walker’s presidential plans. He’s supposed to formally announce his candidacy in July after the state budget has been achieved. A hard-fought victory could sap his strength at home.
Fred Siegel is the author of Revolt Against the Masses, just reissued in an updated paperback edition.