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Excerpts from recent Wisconsin editorials

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Wisconsin State Journal, April 16

Even Gov. Scott Walker can go back to school

Gov. Scott Walker says he wants to earn the college degree that he abandoned decades ago. We hope that is more than an empty promise from a politician.

His attending the innovative University of Wisconsin System's Flexible Option program would set a powerful example for the many Wisconsin residents who could benefit from going back to school.

There's truth to the old saying "the more you learn, the more you earn." In 2013, median weekly income for someone with a bachelor's degree was $1,108. For someone who stopped with a high school diploma, it was only $651.

Step beyond aggregate statistics, and your mileage varies. Even a college dropout can rise to become governor, and a college graduate can be unemployed. Walker left Marquette University without finishing a degree.

Most people don't live on those margins, though. That's why the Flexible Option is so valuable. Wisconsin residents can earn credits on their own schedule, culminating in a degree that will enable them to seek better paying jobs.

Maybe Walker has the same thing in mind, after a sort. A degree might boost his national appeal if he wants to run for president in 2016. America hasn't elected a president without a college degree since Harry Truman.

Yet Wisconsin voters knew about Walker's background and elected him anyway — twice.

Even if that is Walker's motivation, so what? He might seek another job, just as anyone else who pursues a degree through the Flexible Option does.

He's busy, to be sure. But so is someone working full-time and raising kids. The only serious hurdle now is the limited number of programs available. Walker would need to find one that matches his experience and interests.

If he follows through, he would send an important message to other adults who dropped out of college. It is never too late to go back and finish what you started. Wisconsin makes it possible . even for the governor.


Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, April 17

Is UW System really awash in money?

Those of us on the outside looking in at the state Capitol and the UW System's cash-flow are eager to learn more about whether the latter is sitting on $1.7 billion in extra money or if lawmakers are simply jumping on an election-year opportunity to announce a second straight two-year tuition freeze.

It was announced recently that the UW System finished the first nine months of its fiscal year with more than $1.7 billion on hand, and should end the fiscal year with $1.1 billion left over. Gov. Scott Walker surmised that if the UW has that kind of money sitting around, there is no need to ask students and their parents for more money. Walker says he'll propose another two-year tuition freeze in his 2015-17 state budget should he be re-elected in November.

That's the story in a nutshell. But going beyond the headline is a possible dilemma for the UW System. Yes, on paper it may show a healthy bottom line, but according to the Associated Press story, 75 percent of that $1.7 billion already is committed and another 22 percent is being held for a purpose related to the original funding source, but the planned expenditure is not documented. That leaves just $38 million with no specific spending plan, according to the UW System.

The danger is that campuses may not actually be sitting on large reserves, and a second two-year tuition freeze would require them to scale back at the same time we're counting on the UW System to help spur job growth in the state.

Phil Lyons, UW-Stout's vice chancellor for administration and student life services, said another tuition freeze would cause "significant pain" at the Menomonie campus that could result in larger classes, less scholarship money, loss of talented faculty, and negatively impact overall quality.

UW-Stout reported that its balance in the last fiscal year was $16.1 million, and that most of that money is designated for specific uses.

An unrestricted cash carryover of $643 million in July 2012 revealed in a state review last year prompted lawmakers to freeze tuition in the 2013-15 state budget after years of annual increases in the 5.5 percent range. That is in addition to "differential tuition" approved in recent years at a number of UW campuses, including UW-Eau Claire.

It's up to officials at UW campuses to make their case that a second two-year tuition freeze would cause major harm to their operations. When the fund balance was announced last year followed by the freeze, there was surprisingly little pushback from the campuses. That leaves one to believe the tuition freeze was warranted and the UW System's initial request for higher tuition wasn't justified.

Now, with a second two-year freeze highly likely, it's incumbent upon UW System and campus officials to explain why taxpayers shouldn't agree with Walker's proposal.

Any large enterprise should have a healthy reserve fund at any given time to cover for those times when revenues lag. Locally, there are times the Eau Claire school district has a large "undesignated reserve," but other times during the year that it has to borrow money short term to meet payroll, etc., until the next batch of property tax payments and state aid refill the coffers.

If that's the scenario facing the UW System, it needs to be explained. But if the $1.7 billion is a huge rainy day fund spread out among the campuses, then there is little reason for the public to rally behind any possible pleas to charge students and their parents more for tuition any time soon.


Green Bay Press-Gazette, April 14

State government improves transparency; more work needs to be done

We believe our public institutions should be transparent. We want to know how our elected lawmakers vote, how workers in public office carry out their duties, how much our federal, state and local government spend and what they spend that money on.

Those are basic expectations with a democratic form of government.

That's why it was encouraging to see that the state of Wisconsin received an A-minus in "Following the Money 2014," a report on state government spending transparency by the WISPIRG Foundation. WISPIRG is a consumer advocacy group.

The report looks at all 50 states and how well, or how poorly, they provide online access to spending. It cites Wisconsin as "the only state that provides complete informationon the public benefits delivered by recipients of economic development subsidies."

The A-minus grade is up from an F and represents the largest increase of any state. It is mainly because of the launch of OpenBook Wisconsin that allows residents to go online and view the state's checkbook and look at payments that are broken down by vendor name, purchasing agency or type of expenditure.

The website has more than 25 million entries dating back to fiscal year 2008 for purchases, travel and vendor payments for state agencies, the Legislature, courts and the University of Wisconsin System.

The state is planning to add state employee salary and benefit information — covering state jobs, UW, Legislature and the courts — and grants that have been awarded.

The Department of Administration estimates about 850 visitors a day go to OpenBook Wisconsin, according to a Wisconsin State Journal story.

That's impressive. It shows there's an interest in how our government is spending taxpayer money. That interest and that degree of accessibility to the payments hold government officials and lawmakers accountable to their constituents. They also help fight corruption and questionable spending.

We applaud the Department of Administration for getting this handy source up and running, but out old objection remains — more information is needed, such as the salaries of workers, details on each transaction and funds returned by subsidy recipients who are unable to meet their goals.

Still, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention that it's a big improvement over the state's Contract Sunshine website, and it's a step in the right direction.

"Open information about the public purse is crucial for democratic and effective government," said Bruce Speight, WISPIRG Foundation director.

He's absolutely right, and while we're glad to see OpenBook Wisconsin working, we look forward to improvements and additions to it.

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