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Wisconsin Republicans deny UW System staff pay raises over diversity funding

All other state workers will see a 6 percent raise over the next 2 years

Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, is seen during a convening of the Assembly
Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, is seen during a convening of the Assembly at the Wisconsin State Capitol on Jan. 25, 2020 in Madison, Wis. Coburn Dukehart/Wisconsin Watch

Half of state workers, about 34,000 people, will not be getting pay raises included in the state budget, as a Republican-controlled committee on Tuesday approved a 6 percent raise over two years for all but those who work for the University of Wisconsin System.

The exclusion is a flashpoint in the ongoing fight over diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has vowed to block more than $100 million in funding for raises unless the universities eliminate all DEI positions.

Vos has criticized DEI programming as an attempt to “indoctrinate” students with taxpayer dollars. Universities have taken steps in response to the criticism, including no longer asking potential faculty to describe how they have used their work to further diversity, equity and inclusion.

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“We are denying pay increases to half of our state workforce because of one person’s resistance to initiatives to increase inclusion in our campuses,” Democratic Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard said.

Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature had previously approved funding for pay increases for the approximate 34,000 employees in the UW System. Those workers were to receive a 4 percent increase in fiscal year 2024 and a 2 percent pay increase in fiscal year 2025.

However, the Republican-controlled Joint Committee on Employee Relations, of which Vos is a co-chair, had to approve the funding for it to go into effect.

“There is one agency in state government that is allowed to create positions outside the legislative process,” Vos said in the committee hearing, referring to the university system.

Vos said he offered to approve the raises and in exchange “say that we will not increase the number of positions without the legislature’s authority, just like every other agency in the state.”

“Their initial reaction is, ‘We’d rather not have the raises for our employees than to have any kind of control by the Legislature over the number of positions,’” he said.

Speaking with reporters after the hearing, UW System Jay Rothman declined to respond to a question about such a proposal.

“It is unprecedented to withhold pay from tens of thousands of working families as was done today,” Rothman said. “We are beyond disappointed. We’re not gonna give up being advocates for the work that our faculty and staff do because it changes the trajectory of people’s lives.”

Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, sits on the committee and broke with Vos in a statement after the vote.

Marklein said he was proud to have voted to give raises to workers in prisons, parks and other state agencies, but “very disappointed” the UW employees were not included.

“The local employees on our campuses should not be penalized for policy decisions made by leaders of the university system,” Marklein said. “The custodians, executive assistants, food service providers and local faculty at UW-Platteville have very little to do with the politics of the university system.”

The move to block raises is the latest targeting the universities over diversity efforts. During the state budget process, Vos and Republican colleagues backed cutting $32 million from the UW System’s budget and eliminating 188 staff positions related to DEI efforts for students and staff.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers spared the jobs with a line-item veto, but the $32 million cut remained in the budget he signed into law this summer. The funding is technically slated for workforce development initiatives at state campuses, but Vos has said it won’t be released unless DEI is eliminated.

Republicans in states across the country have targeted DEI programs in higher education, even before the U.S. Supreme Court effectively ended race-based admission programs earlier this year.

Editor’s note: Wisconsin Public Radio staff are employees of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.