The Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance held a hearing on Thursday for a bill that would fund the replacement of UW-Madison’s engineering building. (UW-Madison)
The Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance held a public hearing Thursday on legislation to provide funding for the UW System capital projects that were used as bargaining chips in the system’s debate with legislative Republicans late last year over diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs.
The bill would provide more than $400 million from the state’s general fund to pay for new campus buildings, renovations, additions and the demolition of aging infrastructure. The marquee project included in the bill is funding for a new engineering building at UW-Madison.
In the state budget writing process last summer, Republicans refused to include funding for the capital projects. For months after, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and other Republicans blocked funding for the infrastructure improvements as well as the money for already approved raises for thousands of UW System employees because of objections to the System’s DEI programs.
In December, UW System President Jay Rothman reached a deal with the legislative Republicans to release funding for the projects and the raises in exchange for changes to the DEI programs. Under the deal, the UW System would agree to “reimagine” DEI by freezing the number of DEI positions and realigning a third of those positions to focus not on historically marginalized groups but on academic and student success more broadly.
After a dramatic back and forth, the deal was ultimately approved by the UW System Board of Regents.
At the hearing on Thursday, Republicans touted the legislation providing the infrastructure funding as a win for the UW System because of the importance of the projects for issues such as recruiting and retaining faculty. Democrats questioned why the funding was denied in the first place if the projects are so worthwhile and lamented the trade that was required to get the approval.
“I’m trying to be really happy for the UW System for getting these new improvements for their campuses because they do deserve these new buildings,” Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) said. “But there’s a part of me that can’t help but be just a little bit irritated at the fact that we all know how we got here and we all know why we’re here. So you talk about recruitment, and how these buildings would be good for recruitment in terms of faculty. How does getting national attention for dissolving DEI in exchange for these projects, in exchange for salaries, in exchange for raises, how does that [bode] for recruitment of staff?”
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