UW students are leading a coalition calling for a state budget that is not a repeat of the last one.
Dreaming of a fair budget
During a recent public appearance, I was among a group of University of Wisconsin students and state workers who confronted Governor Doyle for hiking tuition and heath care costs. We demanded to know why the governor had balanced the budget on the backs of low- and middle-income students and workers rather than cutting our bloated prison system and scaling back corporate subsidies and tax breaks. When we asked him if he was going to lower tuition for students in the 2005-2007 state budget, Doyle answered dryly, "You must be living in a dream world.”
Well, Governor, we do have a dream—one where all people, regardless of their race, class, or social circumstances have equal access to free, quality, public higher education. While we may not achieve this far-reaching goal in the upcoming budget cycle, it is not farfetched to demand that the state reinvest in the state school, lowering tuition costs and taking us one step closer to that aim. Unfortunately, recent history has taken us down the opposite path: Two years ago, Governor Doyle and the Republican-controlled Legislature slashed $250 million from the UW system – the biggest cut in history – and hiked tuition 37.5 percent, or $1,400 per year.
The process of the state’s divestment from the UW System has been a long, painful one that did not start with Governor Doyle or his Republican counterpart, Assembly speaker John Gard. Thirty years ago, the state provided 51 percent of the funding for the university, and in-state tuition was $470 per year; you could pay your tuition by working one month at a summer job. Now, however, the state only accounts for 22 percent of the UW’s budget, and tuition has skyrocketed to $5,840 a year for Wisconsin residents, and $19,850 for out-of-state students.
What is going on is the back-door privatization of the University of Wisconsin. By continually cutting state support of the university and increasing reliance on corporate donors and rich people who can afford the exorbitant tuition, the great “public” university has become financially out of reach for many sectors of the public. The budget cuts have affected more than just tuition, though: from cutting 100 classes at UW-Whitewater to underfunding the Advanced Opportunity Program at UW-Milwaukee that supports 75 percent of the students of color there to taking away Teaching Assistants’ zero-cost health care at UW-Madison, every aspect of university life has been hit hard.
Actually, I take that back. One group of people has done just fine through all the budget ups and downs over the years: the UW administration. While students and workers have “done our part” in terms of getting less in times of fiscal deficits, top UW officials continue to get pay raises that only corporate CEO’s can relate to. Last spring, the Board of Regents was caught holding an illegal, secret meeting to raise UW administrators’ salaries. (Later, Governor Doyle engineered the ousting of Nino Amato, the regent who blew the whistle on the meeting and has also called for a four-year tuition freeze, off the Board). On November 5, the regents voted to raise UW officials’ pay once again while declining to commit to a 5 percent cap on tuition increases. This came on the heels of their August vote to raise students’ tuition another 9 percent, or $500 a year. The regents’ hypocrisy is matched only by the contempt shown by the governor and state Legislature.
Because of the unwillingness of our elected and unelected officials to take a stand for struggling students, we are organizing to stand up for ourselves. We have formed a growing coalition of student organizations, unions, civil rights groups, PTA’s, local Green parties, and progressive Democrats and Republicans from throughout the state to demand that the state reinvest in the UW system. We have thousands of signatures in support, including that of Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewiecz, and Beth Richlen, the only student on the Board of Regents. You can join them by adding your name online.
In addition to the budget fight, we are joining with others to fight the so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR), which would decimate the UW System along with all other public institutions. About TABOR, let me say one thing that I think most Wisconsin residents would agree with me on: Education is a human right. Health care is a human right. Freezing property taxes below the level of inflation may be important, but it is not an “inalienable right” that should go alongside free speech in the Constitution.
For anyone who cares about the future of Wisconsin and of the world, we need to defeat TABOR and then pass a budget that puts our real priorities first. It is time to stop investing in new prisons and new wars and start reinvesting in dreams.
November 16, 2004
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Josh Healey is a member of the Student Labor Action Coalition and the MultiCultural Student Coalition at UW-Madison.