MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Republican speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly is blocking pay raises for University of Wisconsin employees unless the university cuts diversity, equity and inclusion spending by $32 million — a move that comes amid the Democratic governor's calls for lawmakers to spend even more on higher education.
The fight in Wisconsin reflects a broader cultural battle playing out across the nation over college diversity initiatives. Republican Govs. Ron DeSantis in Florida and Greg Abbott in Texas both signed laws this year banning the use of diversity, equity and inclusion measures in student admissions and staff employment decisions at colleges and universities. Similar bills were proposed in about a dozen Republican-led states.
In June, the GOP-controlled Wisconsin Legislature cut funding to the UW System by $32 million, which was the amount Republicans identified as going toward so-called DEI efforts at UW's 13 campuses over two years.
At the same time it cut that funding, the Legislature approved pay raises for 34,000 university employees of 4% this year and 2% next year.
Gov. Tony Evers used his veto to save 188 DEI positions at the university, but the funding cut remained.
The budget that the Legislature passed and Evers signed also included the pay raises for UW and state employees. But those raises would still need the approval of an eight-member committee of legislative leaders that is controlled 6-2 by Republicans.
The co-chair of that committee, Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, last week said he would not approve the raises until UW shows that it has cut DEI programs and staff by $32 million.
“I don’t think that they deserve to have any more resources until they accomplish the goal,” Vos told WisPolitics.com on Friday. “Not a nickel. When I say a nickel, that’s what I mean.”
Neither Vos nor any of the other Republicans on the committee immediately responded to Tuesday messages seeking comment.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard, who is also a member of the committee, said Vos was holding the employees hostage.
“Unfortunately, here in Wisconsin we have hyperpartisan folks in the Legislature who are trying to score political points as opposed to moving forward in the best interests of our state," Agard said.
Evers' spokesperson, Britt Cudaback, accused Republicans of being focused on “playing political games with Wisconsinites’ livelihoods.”
“It’s ridiculous, it’s wrong-headed, and it’s clear Republicans are completely out of touch with the very real and pressing workforce challenges facing our state,” she said.
Vos has argued that DEI programs are a waste of public funding and that the university should be focused on other priorities.
UW President Jay Rothman has walked a fine line publicly while advocating for the pay raises and trying to get additional funding. The university plans to make a case next month to get back $15 million of the funding that was cut, using it on the priority areas of nursing, engineering, computer and data science, and business.
Rothman said in a statement that efforts to get the pay raises approved continue and he is “hopeful” they'll succeed.
“We continue to have discussions with the Speaker and appreciate that there are differing views on (DEI)," Rothman said. “We believe we can work through these issues without adversely affecting employees and their families.”
Meanwhile, Evers continues to push the Legislature for even more funding for UW. He called a longshot special legislative session for Wednesday to approve a $1 billion package that includes $66 million for UW, $365 million on child care including making the pandemic-era Child Care Counts Program permanent, and $243 million to provide up to 12 weeks of paid family leave for Wisconsin workers starting in 2025.
He's also proposing a number of other workforce initiatives, as well as asking the Legislature to spend nearly $200 million to build a new engineering building on the UW-Madison campus. The project was the top priority for university leaders, but Republican lawmakers rejected it.
Republicans have already said they don't plan to do what Evers wants.
The special session, the 13th Evers has called, is likely to be over within seconds as Republicans gavel in as required by law, but then adjourn without any debate. That is what happened to past Evers' special session calls on abortion rights, addressing gun violence, expanding Medicaid and increasing education funding.
The Assembly last week approved a package of child care bills that Republicans put forward as alternatives to what Evers wants. The six measures passed would create a loan program for child care providers, lower the minimum age of child care workers and increase the number of children workers could supervise.
Evers is almost certain to veto the bills, which he has called inadequate to deal with the state's shortage of child care providers.
Associated Press writer David A. Lieb contributed to this report from Jefferson City, Missouri.