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Gov. Tony Evers talks about potential UW budget increase on ‘Wisconsin Today’

The governor also addresses MPS audits, JFC funding and Waupun prison charges

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Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers speaks before President Joe Biden delivers remarks on student loan debt at Madison College, Monday, April 8, 2024, in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Last week, Gov. Tony Evers announced he’s seeking an $800 million budget increase for the Universities of Wisconsin in the state’s next two-year budget. He described it as the largest increase in state funding in the UW system’s history.

This came after other announcements from the governor’s office related to financial woes at Milwaukee Public Schools and news of criminal charges being brought against officials at Waupun Correctional Institution.

Gov. Evers joined WPR’s “Wisconsin Today” for a look at these and other issues facing the state.

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Major budget increase for UW schools

When asked why such a major investment in the university system is important at this time, Gov. Evers pointed to a decade-long history of UW campuses requesting funds and the administration and Legislature saying no. This has led to years of UW schools having to cut back, including layoffs at some campuses last year.

“The bottom line here is that the UW system ranks 41st or 42nd — depending on the study — in the nation in state support. That is just not where we want to be. We want to be one of the best in the world. And we’re failing that effort because of resources,” Evers said.

He said he believes now is the right time to act, despite declining enrollment at most two-year UW campuses.

“We’re investing in probably the most important economic driver in the state of Wisconsin, the University of Wisconsin system,” he said. “It’s time to step up and say they need the resources they deserve.”

2 more audits for Milwaukee Public School district

Last week, Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Keith Posley resigned after it came to light that the school district was over eight months behind on submitting required financial reports and at risk of losing millions of dollars in state funding.

The school district is set to undergo a financial audit. Now, Gov. Evers is moving forward with two more audits focusing on operations and classroom instruction.

He said many people have proposed solutions to the school district’s problems, but it’s not clear which of them will work best until there’s a clearer picture of what really happened.

“We need to have an analysis of what is actually needed so that we can address it,” he said. “My goal with this is to provide not only an operational analysis but also analysis of what’s going on in the classroom and, frankly, (to give) our teachers a chance to also participate in helping to solve this.”

Gov. Evers emphasized the importance of taking these initial steps, even if it means concerned teachers and parents won’t see results right away.

“If we just jump into something, people will feel good for a day or two. And then they’ll realize that we didn’t solve anything,” he said.

Millions of dollars held up by Joint Finance Committee

Evers’ office says about $230 million that’s been approved in the state budget for various programs is currently being held up by the state Legislature’s Republican-controlled budget committee.

“There is absolutely no reason that that large amount of money isn’t (being) sent out to municipalities and others across the state of Wisconsin,” he said. “The Joint Finance Committee has decided that they’re going to be a small executive branch of state government. And it just doesn’t work that way.”

Currently, the committee must sign off on requests from state agencies like the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Public Instruction to release funds slated for certain projects. Last week, State Superintendent Jill Underly urged the Joint Finance Committee to approve her request for $49 million for a literacy program that was part of the last budget.

For Evers, the holdup is frustrating because the money is meant to address a number of important issues around the state.

“For them to be holding any money, whether it’s around child care, whether it’s around PFAS, whether it’s around money for the people in the Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls area to rebound from having some closures of their hospitals,” is wrong, he said. “All that money’s just sitting there. And we can get it out. All they have to do is vote and send it out.”

Felony charges have been filed against nine employees of the Waupun Correctional Institution, including a former warden, related to the deaths of two of the people under prison custody.

The Department of Corrections is undertaking an internal investigation, and Gov. Evers has asked the Dodge County sheriff to keep the county investigation open.

“I believe that if there’s any employee that has made a mistake, (they) should be held accountable,” Gov. Evers said.

When asked how the state could turn things around at Waupun, which has faced national scrutiny for deteriorating building conditions and last year’s lockdowns, Gov. Evers said the Legislature holds the key to solving the problem.

“If we’re looking at criminal justice reform, all we have to do is look back to the things that I’ve asked for around education and so on that have never gone through the budget that I could help this problem and preempt it,” he said.

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