MADISON, Wis. (AP) - A provision that would force the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism off the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus blindsided the center's leader, who said Wednesday he's still trying to understand why his group was specifically targeted.
The center, a nonpartisan investigative news organization that offers its stories free to mainstream media outlets, operates rent-free out of two offices in the university's journalism school, said Andy Hall, the group's executive director. Under an agreement signed in 2011, the school covers the cost of utilities and Internet access, and in exchange the center hires some of its students as paid interns and provides academic support.
Hall and the school, who agree the arrangement has been mutually beneficial, stopped short of interpreting the move as some sort of political payback. But the budget modification, proposed early Wednesday by two Republicans, left the center and the school scrambling for answers.
The proposal, one of several put forth by state Sen. Alberta Darling and state Rep. John Nygren, would do two things: Prohibit the Center for Investigative Journalism from occupying facilities on any UW property and prohibit UW employees from doing any work related to the news center.
"We had no idea this was coming. We don't know what precipitated it," Hall said. "I found out about it when I woke up this morning and saw that my phone had blown up with messages and phone calls."
The measure became part of the overall budget bill that the Joint Finance Committee passed along party lines. All 12 of the committee's Republicans voted for it, and all four Democrats against it. The Assembly and Senate must pass identical forms of the budget before sending it to Gov. Scott Walker for his signature. Walker has the power to veto individual items.
Messages left with Darling and Nygren were not immediately returned. Messages were also left with Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. Both have said they don't anticipate any changes being made to the budget in the Senate or Assembly, suggesting the provision would remain in the final bill.
During the early-morning debate, Democratic Sen. Bob Wirch said the Legislature shouldn't target a center that tries to shine light on corruption.
Nygren replied that Wirch might feel differently if the university was using resources to fund news outlets that some see as right-leaning, such as Fox News and the MacIver Institute.
"We're just being consistent," Nygren said. "We shouldn't be providing resources to this organization."
Hall said his office began receiving inquiries about the center's operations and funding about a week ago after a colleague wrote a column about wealthy campaign contributors bankrolling an effort supporting alternatives to traditional public schooling.
Hall noted that the center also wrote a 2011 story highlighting Nygren's dual role as an insurance agent and a member of a legislative insurance committee involved in repealing certain insurance regulations. The story noted that Nygren was asked to release constituent correspondence and he turned over 42 emails, two-thirds of which came from people associated with the insurance industry.
"That all happened in 2011," Hall said, "so I don't know what might have precipitated the action early this morning."
Hall said the Center for Investigative Journalism had a 2013 budget of $435,000. Of that, 80 percent was from foundation grants, 6 percent came corporate donors and another 6 percent came from sponsorships.
The budget includes $40,000 for paid internships. The center has four paid interns during the school year and six during the summer, Hall said.
Greg Downey, the director of UW-Madison's journalism school, said he was especially worried about the second provision barring UW employees from doing any work with the center. He said UW faculty regularly collaborate with outside organizations on media-related projects.
"As written it would seem to broadly and recklessly infringe on our academic freedom in terms of research, teaching, and service," Downey said.
The center has published 105 reports since 2009. Its staff broke the news of an alleged physical altercation between two state Supreme Court justices. Other reports have focused on chronic polluters who were still awarded federal stimulus funds and the underreporting of sexual assaults on UW campuses.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Firefighters are battling a house fire in Kewaunee County.
Wind, snow, cold and ice played a role as firefighters battled a fire in downtown Ripon Wednesday morning.
Outagamie County's second largest employer is expanding, and veterans are encouraged to apply.
The State Building Commission has approved $5 million to help build the Wisconsin Maritime Center of Excellence in Marinette.
Fond du Lac police have released more information about the weapons they found in the apartment of a man who was at the center of a five-hour standoff on Monday.
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation is announcing a public meeting has been scheduled to provide road closure and design information for the Velp Avenue interchange area.