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The University of Wisconsin's flagship Madison campus would receive more flexibility in how it operates but it would also remain part of the university system under changes to Gov. Scott Walker's budget approved by a legislative committee Friday. Funding to all campuses would be cut 11 percent, the same level Walker proposed.
The Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee voted along party lines 12-4 to reject Walker's proposal to break Madison off from the 13-campus system. While Madison would remain in the system, it and all the campuses would have more flexibility in how they spend state money and make decisions related to personnel and other areas.
The committee also voted to repeal a 2009 law allowing children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition to attend state colleges and universities.
As the committee voted, protesters chanted "Education is a right, not a privilege!" and were taken out of the room by police. A Milwaukee immigrant rights group organized two days of protests in the committee hearings. Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs said 26 people were arrested for disorderly conduct Friday.
The drama came in the waning hours of the committee's last day voting on Walker's budget before its sent to the full Legislature for consideration. Spending at UW was one of the largest issues left for the panel to consider in the two-year spending plan that starts July 1. Along with legislative approval, the budget needs Walker's signature to take effect.
The budget committee voted to accept Walker's proposal to cut funding to the entire university system by $250 million. But instead of Madison taking a $125 million cut, its share was reduced to $94 million over two years.
Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, said the debate over breaking Madison off from the rest of the system shifted the focus away from the larger issue of the size of cut the university is taking.
"The headline should be `higher education decimated,'" Jauch said.
Republican backers said the new structure was a good development since it gives campuses more freedom to handle its own finances.
UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin was diplomatic about the partial defeat.
"One never imagines you will ever get everything you want in the first try," Martin said as she and university leaders read details of the deal to be voted on later Friday.
Martin, who was at the Capitol, praised other parts of the deal reached with Republicans who control the budget committee and the Legislature, calling it a "very good and very important first step."
Martin had advocated strongly for Walker's plan, saying the Madison campus needed more freedom to operate efficiently. But the proposal drew opposition from state lawmakers, some faculty and others on the Madison campus, and other leaders in the system, including UW President Kevin Reilly, who argued that the same freedoms Madison sought should be given to all the campuses.
That argument carried the day with Republicans in control of the Legislature. Rep. Robin Vos, co-chair of the budget committee, said lawmakers weren't interested in only giving the Madison campus the independence it sought. The committee also planned to call for a study to look into the issue, he said.
The plan approved by the committee would not change how tuition is set nor would it give Madison a governing board separate from the Board of Regents that currently oversees the entire system.
"Legislators heard a clear message from citizens around our state who want UW institutions to remain part of one efficient, effective statewide system," said UW System Board of Regents President Charles Pruitt in a prepared statement.
UW President Kevin Reilly said the flexibilities provided in the bill will help the campuses deal with its present challenges and better serve the state for decades to come.
Martin said debate over the plan marked a shift in the discussion about how the university is funded and operates.
"I think what we've done is build a platform for future advocacy for the university," she said.