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What Wisconsin can learn from Louisiana’s budget debates

by Rachel Nathanson, WISCAPE Communications Assistant | Jul 9, 2015

Rachel Nathanson is a recent graduate of UW-Madison. 

At first glance, there seem to be a lot of similarities between Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed budget cuts to the University of Wisconsin System and Gov. Bobby Jindal’s proposed budget cuts to the Louisiana State University System. Both states face significant budget shortfalls, with Wisconsin’s at $2.2 billion and Louisiana’s at $1.6 billion. Walker’s budget would have cut higher education funding by 13 percent, or $300 million over two years. If this sounds like a lot, consider the 82 percent cut to higher education that Louisiana would have faced. Jindal announced a $141.3 million funding decrease in his proposal, but reports attempting to account for the funding’s contingency on tax cuts and tuition increases have put the number as high as $600 million.

Although numbers-wise, higher education initially seemed a lot worse off in Louisiana than in Wisconsin, discussions in the two states have progressed a lot differently. While UW System President Ray Cross, UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank, and other UW System chancellors and administrators put their energy into high-level political negotiations, focusing largely on debate over Walker’s failed proposal to transform the UW System into a “public authority,” Louisiana State University President and Chancellor F. King Alexander reached out to the roots of the LSU System.

Alexander made noise by speaking candidly about the potential consequences of the proposed 82 percent funding cut, and he encouraged students to share their opinions -- even to “be annoying” -- if that’s what it would take for policymakers to listen. And ultimately, it worked; the legislature shifted the cuts around and managed to maintain LSU’s funding through changes in rebates, fees, and taxes. The budget is still tight, and LSU may still see cuts in the future. But the dramatic decrease in faculty positions and available classes that would have been the result of an 82 percent budget cut has, for now, been avoided.

While the LSU system can now celebrate a $0 reduction in funding, the $300 million cut to the UW System has been reduced only slightly, to $250 million. What changed in the two states to produce such different results for higher education? Not the stances of Governors Walker or Jindal, both of whom have attempted to justify their funding decisions with anti-tax rhetoric based on Reagan-era economic theory.

Like Walker, who faced public backlash after attempting to replace the famous ‘Wisconsin Idea’ in UW’s mission statement with the phrase “to meet the state’s workforce needs,” Jindal’s budget cites a need “to strengthen the critical linkage between college coursework and employment needs in the State of Louisiana.” For all their apparent concern about job growth, however, both governors refuse to substantially address the fact that layoffs on college campuses across the two states would be a direct result of their proposed cuts to higher education funding. And for all their proclamations of economic growth, both governors appear unwilling to protect the valuable role large public universities play in their states’ economies.

Perhaps, then, the difference in outcomes between the two states can be attributed to who was “at the table” with legislators, speaking up for the interests of public higher education. The concentrated power held by authority figures such as university administrators and state officials cannot, alone, enact the change necessary to ensure the well-being of a large, diverse group of citizens. While students and faculty can rely on administrators to represent them to a certain extent, nobody can represent their interests better than themselves. The success of public higher education advocates in Louisiana reminds us that, if we remain content to let others speak for us, we shouldn't be all that surprised when we find ourselves pushed out of the conversation entirely.

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  1. Chris Newfield

    nice comparison. I think your conclusion about the power of grassroots organizing is exactly right.

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