GOP lawmakers approve $2.4B capital budget but reject key UW project

The building plan would be the state's largest in years but it would not include funding for a new UW-Madison engineering school

Sunlight shines on the Wisconsin State Capitol
Wisconsin State Capitol. Angela Major/WPR

Republicans on the Legislature’s budget committee voted for a $2.4 billion capital budget Thursday, the largest of any state building program in years but considerably smaller than the one proposed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

The capital budget would also leave out funding for several key projects, including a new school of engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the UW System’s top priority.

During brief remarks after the list of building projects was released and before the panel voted, GOP lawmakers focused on the size of the overall spending plan, which is more than twice as large as the one they approved two years ago.

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“Where I come from $2.4 billion is a lot of money,” said Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, who chairs the budget committee. “I would call this an important historic investment for all of Wisconsin.”

But the building plan approved by Republicans was about $1.4 billion smaller than the $3.8 billion capital budget proposed by Evers, with many of the cuts coming to projects at UW campuses.

Sen. Kelda Roys, D-Madison, chastised Republicans for leaving out funding for the new engineering school, accusing them of punishing the UW-Madison because students there are voting for Democrats.

“It is a terrible economic decision,” Roys said. “It makes no economic sense. It only makes sense if you think about it as political retribution.”

The University of Wisconsin played a major role in both Evers’ building plan and the one passed by Republicans. But while Evers’ budget called for $1.8 billion in UW building projects, Republicans approved $950 million, or about half. They included:

  • $285 million for a Camp Randall Sports Center replacement at the UW-Madison.
  • $231 million for a UW-Eau Claire science building.
  • $58 million for residence halls at the UW-Oshkosh.
  • $139 million for renovations to the UW-Stout’s Heritage Hall

Other projects funded by Republicans include $160 million for a new Wisconsin Historical Society Museum and almost $11 million for upgrades to the Marquette University School of Dentistry. Those projects, like others approved Thursday, will be built with a combination of state funding and private gifts.

The UW-Madison’s plans for a new $347 million engineering building also called for a total of $150 million in private gifts. Roys said $110 million of that had already been raised.

“And those donors might walk away when they see what this committee is doing,” Roys said “That is a real risk that you’re taking.”

In a written statement released after the committee’s vote, UW System President Jay Rothman said he appreciated lawmakers approving several university facilities, but he said the state must invest in high-demand programs at all campuses to compete and prosper.

“UW-Madison’s engineering building is our top priority for a reason,” Rothman said. “Investing in this facility will help address a crucial workforce shortage in the state as well as enhance the world-class research that draws talent into our state and drives economic vibrancy.”

Rothman said the UW would continue to champion the project.

Other UW projects that didn’t make the GOP list included a proposal to spend $182 million to replace the science building at UW-La Crosse and $169 million to renovate and build a new art building at UW-Madison.

“It shouldn’t be surprising … to anyone that this is a smaller budget than the one the governor proposed,” Born said. “I understand it’s human nature to highlight the (projects) that are missing — your favorites. But that’s the way it works when you have to craft a more reasonable document.”

While the projects themselves get the most attention in any capital budget, the motion Republicans approved Thursday was also significant because of the way it would pay for the buildings.

Typically when the state funds building projects, it issues bonds, or borrows. But the motion Republicans passed Thursday would pay for many of the projects in cash.

Overall, Republicans would set aside $1.2 billion in state funding for buildings. They’d also spend another $400 million to pay down old debt.

Evers’ building plan also called for using cash instead of borrowing, a move that costs the state more up-front but saves it money in the long run.

The building projects approved Thursday still need to clear the full Legislature before they’re sent to the governor’s desk.

Lawmakers also voted Thursday to increase funding for tourism marketing but rejected new state funding for broadband expansion.