So, let me get this straight. Veteran Republican legislators who routinely decry deficits and call for more business-like practices in government are now chastising the UW System for having a budget reserve. Legislators who gleefully slashed the System's budget and therefore forced tuition increases now portray themselves as the protectors of students, calling for a two-year tuition freeze.
If the Republicans think they can score points with students on this issue, it doesn't seem to be working, as evidenced by this morning's editorial in the Badger Herald. But they may actually be aiming their entreaties more at those students' parents who often pay the bills -- and who vote more reliably -- and it fits with the tried and true endless GOP attack on "Madison."
The UW System has a reserve that amounts to 3.7%, 11.5% or 25% of its budget, depending on how you want to calculate it. It seems to me that the most fair reading is the middle number, about $648 million of a $5.6 billion budget. That 11.5% is about right. For comparative purposes, the city of Madison holds a reserve that hovers around 12%.
And any responsible business keeps a reserve. The state of Wisconsin, which the Republicans run from head to toe, has no significant reserve account at all. Maybe the GOP is angry with the UW System for making them look so bad in comparison.
So, where do Republicans like Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate President Mike Ellis get off blasting System President Kevin Reilly for being prudent with his organization when they've been so cavalier with theirs?
Well, I don't know where they get off, but there are a couple of issues where, it pains me to say, they have a point. Those issues are transparency and timing.
I looked at the System's 2012-13 operating budget document (PDF) expecting to find the reserve account in plain daylight, just as you can find it in the Madison budget. But it's not there. The System's argument is that the reserve doesn't reside in one line, but is spread among campuses. But the reason to have a comprehensive system is to have oversight over all the campuses. The UW System should have collected this number and reported it on its own as a matter of routine. As eager as I am to defend my alma mater, I can't think of a good reason that that number shouldn't have been known far and wide all along. If it had, the System probably wouldn't be in this position. To his credit Reilly has acknowledged that.
The second problem is timing. Well-run organizations build reserves in good times for use in lean ones. But the UW System built its surplus significantly in the last few years just as it was weathering budget cuts from the Legislature and raising tuition to the maximum extent allowed. Combine that with the lack of self-reporting, and you hand political foes of the university all the ammunition they need.
While the UW System took some deserved hits over lack of transparency and the timing of their additions to the reserve, I'd rather have an organization with a prudent reserve than one with none. The UW System is still much better run than the state government that now wants to call it on the carpet.