MADISON (AP) - Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald is breaking with Gov. Scott Walker over funding for the University of Wisconsin System, as pressure builds to freeze tuition in light of newly reported $650 million in system reserves.
Fitzgerald told The Associated Press on Thursday that he doesn't think UW should get a $181 million spending increase over the next two years as Walker has proposed. Fitzgerald and Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos met with Walker's chief of staff and deputy chief of staff Thursday morning to discuss UW funding.
"If they're sitting on this large of a cash balance ... the $181 million can certainly be absorbed by the university," Fitzgerald said before the early morning meeting.
But Walker said this week that he is committed to that spending increase for UW because it helps economic development. Walker, along with Fitzgerald and a bipartisan group of lawmakers, has called for a two-year tuition freeze at UW.
University President Kevin Reilly proposed a 2 percent tuition increase in each of the next two years.
Walker said he planned to revise his budget proposal for UW within the next week to call for the tuition freeze and other unspecified changes.
UW System spokesman David Giroux did not immediately return a message Thursday seeking reaction to Fitzgerald's comments. But he said on Wednesday that "the governor, the regents, and all legislators have a shared interest in holding down the cost of college. We'll have to look carefully at the details, as they emerge, but we're willing to work with state leaders on this."
UW's reserves grew at the same time that it raised tuition 5.5 percent annually since the 2007-2008 academic year. Of the $650 million surplus, $414 million came from tuition.
The Legislature's Joint Finance Committee was meeting Thursday to begin voting on elements of Walker's budget. The university's budget was not scheduled to be discussed and likely won't be voted on until May.
The committee's Republican leaders told reporters before voting began that they support a tuition freeze. But Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, wouldn't commit to Fitzgerald's call to reduce system funding.
"That's a topic for another day," Darling said. "We're working on it."
Nygren said the committee would not look to pull money from the system's reserves to fund other state programs unrelated to the universities.
The Legislature's audit committee's Republican leaders, meanwhile, spent Thursday preparing an order calling on state auditors to undertake a comprehensive review of the surplus.
Democrats joined with Republicans on Wednesday in calling for a two-year tuition freeze at UW. A group of 35 Democrats sent a letter to UW leadership saying raising tuition was unjustifiable in light of the surplus and would hurt struggling Wisconsin families.
The dispute over UW's finances spilled over to the state Building Commission on Wednesday. The Republican-controlled commission voted to put on hold six UW building projects totaling $5.8 million out of concern about the cash reserve issue. It did approve a $384,500 project to update fire alarms on the UW-Eau Claire campus.
Rep. Dean Kaufert, vice chairman of the commission, said holding off on approving the projects for a month won't delay any of the work. He said he didn't want to hurt any of the projects but wanted more time to better understand the cash reserve issue.
"Let's just take a month here, take a deep breath," Kaufert said.
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