Wisconsin governor vows budget veto if GOP cuts diversity funds from university system
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers said Wednesday in a newspaper report that he won’t sign the state budget if Republican lawmakers follow through on their plan to cut funding for the state university system’s diversity officers, escalating a bitter fight over dollars for the state campuses.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he wants to cut $32 million from the UW System in the state’s 2023-25 budget, an amount he said is equal to what the system spends on diversity officers. He said during a news conference Wednesday that diversity efforts have become liberals’ “new religion” and tax dollars shouldn’t be used to help them.
“For people on the left, (efforts to promote diversity have) become their new religion,” Vos said. “They no longer go to church on Sunday, but boy, are they trying to make sure everybody is evangelized on campus, that’s there only one acceptable viewpoint. That’s not what I think taxpayers should be funding.”
Evers, a Democrat and a former UW regent, tweeted Tuesday that the cut would be “disastrous” for the UW System. He told reporters during a tour of a cheese manufacturer in Monroe on Wednesday that he wouldn’t sign the budget if Republicans follow through, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. Cutting the university system when the state has a $7 billion surplus is “irrational” and “ridiculous,” he said.
Evers’ spokesperson, Britt Cudaback, didn’t immediately respond to messages from the AP seeking comment.
Vos appeared unfazed at a second news conference Wednesday afternoon, saying he doesn’t believe Evers would veto the entire budget over one issue. He said if Evers were to do so, Republicans would begin work on a new spending plan in October and force the governor to explain why months have gone by without new funding.
Assembly Republicans are “unanimous in saying that if the governor would make a mistake and try to pick one thing out of an $80 billion budget, to say we have to spend money how he sees fit, that’s not going to work,” Vos said.
Tensions between Republicans who control the Legislature and the state’s university system are nothing new. But the fight this year centers on issues of free speech and UW’s work to advance diversity and racial equity.
The conflict reflects a broader cultural battle playing out across the nation over college diversity initiatives. Republican lawmakers this year have proposed more than 30 bills in 12 states to limit diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in higher education, an Associated Press analysis found in April.
UW spokesperson Mark Pitsch has said salaries for current system employees tasked with working on diversity, equity and inclusion amount to roughly $15.6 million annually. UW System President Jay Rothman hired a new chief diversity officer with an annual salary of $225,000 who began work on Monday. He did not publicize the hiring at a UW Board of Regents meeting earlier this month.
Asked for comment on Evers’ stance, Pitsch said in an email: “We remain hopeful that the state will be an active partner in helping the UW System develop the talent Wisconsin’s workforce is counting on.”
The Legislature’s Republican-controlled finance committee is in the midst of rewriting Evers’ executive budget before forwarding it to the full Assembly and Senate for approval. If the spending plan passes both houses it would go next to Evers, who sign it into law, use his partial veto powers to rewrite large portions of it or veto the entire thing.
UW regents requested an additional $435.6 million over the two-year budget. Evers’ proposal called for giving the system about $305.9 million in new money. The finance committee already rejected plans this month to build a new engineering building on the system’s flagship Madison campus; if the panel chops $32 million from the system the regents would end up about $500 million short of what they say they need.
That could lead to more tuition increases for students as the system tries to make up the shortfall. The regents in March approved hundreds of dollars in tuition, fees and room and board rate increases after Evers’ budget fell $130 million short of their $435.6 million target request.
There was no immediate response to an email sent Wednesday morning seeking comment from the Associated Students of Madison, the student government body at UW-Madison.
It’s unclear when the finance committee may consider UW System’s portion of the budget. The committee was scheduled to vote on it Tuesday evening but ultimately chose to delay action indefinitely.
Sen. Howard Marklein, the Republican co-chair of the committee, did not comment when asked about UW’s budget on Wednesday morning. Rep. Mark Born, the other co-chair, declined to explain why the vote was delayed during a news conference Wednesday afternoon. It was unclear when the committee would take up the matter.
“First of all, I don’t accept that anything broke down,” Born said. “We’re working through the budget process and historically, as well as in this budget, sometimes things are delayed as discussions or work continues ... We’ll take it up when we’re ready to take it up.”