When Gov. Scott Walker proposed a $300 million cut to the state’s university system over two years, Democrats called it a "massive" and "destructive" blow.
That stuck in the craw Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, even though he thought Walker’s plan cut too much.
"Let’s remember that the cut that’s happening under Gov. Walker is about the size of the one that happened under (Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle)," Vos said March 12, 2015 in an interview on Wisconsin Eye.
Vos added: "I didn’t hear Democrats then complaining about the loss of the university and how the world was going to come to an end."
Vos was responding to a prediction from Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, that the university system would fall from the top ranks nationally for a generation under Walker’s plan.
(We rated Mostly True a Barca claim from the interview that "the average faculty member at UW-Madison brings in close to a quarter million dollars a year" in grant money).
The largest cut to higher education during Doyle’s eight-year tenure came in his 2003-’05 budget, his first. That’s the budget Vos was referring to said aide Kit Beyer.
First, the numbers.
Walker’s cut in state support, depending on how you tally it up, amounts to between $278 million and $297 million in the 2015-’17 budget.
The Doyle cut, approved by Republican lawmakers, was $250 million from 2003 to 2005.
The best comparison is the percentage view: Walker’s cut amounts to between 12 percent and 13 percent of state general-fund aid to the university system; Doyle’s was 12 percent.
So, as Vos said, the reductions were quite comparable.
But Vos’ analysis skips past an important point. In 2003, Doyle and legislative Republicans allowed tuition to rise by 18 percent, or $150 million. That took a lot of the sting out of the budget cuts.
In contrast, Walker has again proposed a tuition freeze, blocking the university from turning to students or their families to backfill the budget.
Now to the second part of Vos’ claim, that Democrats didn’t see the 2003 cut in the apocalyptic way they describe Walker’s.
We reviewed news releases posted on WisPolitics.com and looked at news stories from that time.
Democrats did appear to lay off of Doyle’s UW cuts, at least publicly.
One Milwaukee-area Democrat, state Rep. Sheldon Wasserman said:
"We're in a fiscal crisis. The truth is, I think the whole situation is not fair. At this point, although the university is being hit, when you're dealing with life and death (matters), it's a basic triage."
The same can’t be said of UW administrators and student groups, both of whom pushed back pretty hard on the cuts and the tuition increase.
"We don't have too many friends in the Legislature, and I'd like to know why because we're not bad people doing bad things to the state," Linda Weimer, the UW System's vice president for university relations, was quoted as saying in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story.
Vos focused on Democratic Party legislators in his claim, though, not on students or UW officials. And lawmakers and Doyle defended the cut, in part, by pointing out UW tuition rates were among the lowest in the Big 10 at the time.
There’s one other piece of context worth noting when comparing Democratic reaction in 2003 and 2015.
Doyle’s 2003 cut was the first significant reduction in state support in years. The previous budget, under Gov. Scott McCallum, cut $12 million; the one before that actually increased state support. The fact that UW had been spared deep cuts in the years leading up to 2003 seemed to mute reaction from both parties to the big Doyle cut.
By contrast, under Walker, his proposed 2015-’17 reduction comes four years after cuts of $250 million to universities in his first budget (2011-’13).
Vos said Walker’s proposed reduction in university spending is "about the size of the one that happened" under Doyle, but Democrats didn’t treat that cut as so dire.
The one cut Vos referred to, in 2003 under Doyle and legislators, was very similar in size to Walker’s current proposal.
It’s worth pointing out though that Doyle, unlike Walker, allowed big tuition hikes to ease the 2003 budget cuts, and that Walker has proposed deeper cuts in the UW System than Doyle in less time.
We rate the Vos claim Mostly True.