Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) answered question at a press conference ahead of Assembly Republicans passing the budget bill on June 29, 2023. (Baylor Spears | Wisconsin Examiner)
A Republican-led legislative committee approved pay raises for University of Wisconsin System employees on Tuesday after withholding the raises for several months as a way of pushing the state’s public universities to eliminate diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), who is white, promised after the vote that Republicans would be looking to eliminate DEI initiatives throughout the state.
The Joint Committee on Employment Relations (JCOER) voted 5-1 with Senate President Chris Kapenga voting against to approve the 6% raises across two years for about 35,000 UW System employees. The raises were included in the budget passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Tony Evers, but needed to receive final approval by the committee. State statute requires changes to employee compensation to be submitted to the committee, which can approve or modify plans. The raises were withheld in October due to Vos’ goal of eliminating DEI positions across the System.
The approval comes after the UW System Board of Regents approved the deal negotiated by Vos and UW System President Jay Rothman. The Regents reversed themselves after initially voting against the deal. As a part of the agreement, the UW System will freeze DEI hiring, “realign” a third of the current DEI positions across campuses to focus generally on academic and student success rather than specifically on historically marginalized groups and will hire a “chair of conservative thought” at UW-Madison. In exchange, the UW is getting the pay raises and funds to pay for infrastructure projects and other initiatives throughout the System.
Vos said, following the Regents’ approval last week, that the changes for the System are “just the first step in what will be our continuing efforts to eliminate these cancerous DEI practices.” He reaffirmed the sentiment after the committee voted to approve the raises.
“We are not done yet trying to look at how pervasive DEI is throughout the entire system of state government,” Vos said. “I have faith that legislative Republicans will begin a much-needed, long-term in-depth review of every part of DEI in state government, be it in the Department of Corrections or the UW system, the tech colleges or every part of state government. So stay tuned.”
Vos and Wisconsin Republicans have been targeting DEI efforts throughout the year. The lawmakers first included a provision that bans the city of Milwaukee from funding positions to promote DEI in a law that increased local government funding and then cut $32 million from the UW System budget in an effort to eliminate DEI — money that lawmakers have now agreed to release as a part of the deal.
Vos called DEI “division, exclusion and indoctrination” on Tuesday and said that nobody in the Legislature or the public should be supportive of it. He said he wants to make progress towards a “colorblind society.”
Senate Minority Leader Dianne Hesselbein (D-Middleton) said that the approval of the UW employees’ pay raises by the committee should have happened months ago and that they shouldn’t have been used as a bargaining chip by Republicans.
“Republicans decided to utilize people’s paychecks as pawns for partisan political gains,” Hesselbein said during the Tuesday meeting. “[DEI] is important, and I believe it’s important to everybody in the state of Wisconsin… By attacking these initiatives, Republicans are pursuing an agenda that negatively impacts students of color, low income students, students in the military, students with disabilities, students who are returning to college after the loss of a loved one or the birth of a child, first generation college students and so many others.”
The deal was criticized by Democrats and some UW staff and students, who didn’t want to see DEI efforts curtailed in exchange for funds.
Evers’ spokesperson Britt Cudaback said in a social media post that he is the “governor of Wisconsin. Robin Vos is not.” She said that the Evers administration will continue its DEI efforts “notwithstanding the small-minded objections of legislative Republicans.”
The pay raises are also the subject of a lawsuit filed by Evers against Republican lawmakers challenging what he calls several “legislative vetoes.” Evers argues in the suit that the actions to block certain funds or administrative policies by lawmakers are a violation of the Wisconsin Constitution’s separation of powers.
Evers said that the committee’s approval of the pay adjustments changes nothing about his lawsuit since “JCOER can perpetually hold its veto threat over UW’s head in future budget cycles.”
Attorney General Josh Kaul sent a letter on Evers’ behalf on Tuesday requesting that the state Supreme Court address the governor’s challenge in spite of the Legislature’s action. He argues that the decision doesn’t render the case moot.
“If this issue is not resolved now, JCOER can perpetually hold its veto threat over UW’s head in future budget cycles,” the letter states. “And if JCOER can evade judicial review every time UW files suit or submits to a JCOER demand, the validity of this veto power might never be resolved.”
The lawsuit also cites the Joint Committee on Finance continued blocking of conservation projects approved under the state’s Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program; and the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules continued blocking of updates to the state’s commercial building code and rejection of a ban on conversion therapy in the ethics codes of social workers, therapists and counselors.
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