Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) continues to chip away at the public sector in the Badger State, recently introducing plans to sell off large public holdings such as state prisons and university buildings. The plan could save the state millions of dollars, allowing the government to slash its $8 billion debt.
Walker has set his sites on the University of Wisconsin (UW) system, a network of 13 four-year campuses with about 1,900 buildings valued at roughly $11.5 billion.
Buildings constructed with student fees or donations for the improvement of campus life could be taken from public ownership and sold off. One of the biggest losses could be student unions, a key area on any university campus.
Critics believe that the plan is short-sighted and could result in the loss of future donations made to public universities, especially the system’s flagship campus in Madison.
“I think it’s foolish, mindless and will have a very chilling effect on fundraising,” said Milwaukee businessman Sheldon Lubar, a donor who gave millions of dollars to help build academic buildings at UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee.
The Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel reports, “Under Walker’s new plan, the state Building Commission, which consists of the governor, three state senators, three state representatives and a citizen member, would have wide latitude to sell state properties.”
Since entering office in 2011, Walker has continuously sought to slash public spending by partially privatizing the state Department of Commerce and undoing mandatory sex education. For critics, the cuts mean less funding for critical social programs that help the state’s 5.7 million residents.
“They want further expansion of voucher schools — even if it means cutting more funding from public schools,” writes Jack Craver, an opinion writer for the Capital Times.
The proceeds from these sales would be used first to pay off any remaining debt on the properties. Any leftover money would then be used to pay down other state debt.
“I really don’t think [Walker] thought this through and understands the negative impact this would have on the university,” said Lubar, who served on the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents from 1991 to 1998.
The Memorial Union at UW-Madison could be sold and no longer controlled by the university. Student unions, built with student fees, are central to student life, as are residence halls that also potentially could be sold under the governor’s proposal, said Matt Guidry, communications director for United Council of UW Students.
Many Democratic legislators oppose Walker’s plan, leading some to believe that there may be a compromise in works.
“Legislators have told us that selling these buildings isn’t their intent,” Guidry said. “We believe that’s their intent today, but the next person down the road may feel differently.”
One of the most hotly debated provisions would allow the Building Commission to sell the state’s heating, cooling and power plants. Wisconsin currently owns 33 facilities, most of which provide steam and chilled water to UW campuses, prisons, health institutions and veterans homes.
The plan could actually lead to higher day-to-day costs — such as buying power and steam to heat prisons and dorms — after it sells the properties.
The plan is in keeping with Walker’s history of privatization and staunch fiscal conservatism. Walker previously gained national attention for legislation February 2011 that would limit the collective bargaining rights of public sector unions.
Over 100,000 union members protested in the state capitol, leading to a recall election. Walker survived the recall, propelled by large donations that allowed him to outspend challenger Tom Barrett by more than $27 million.
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