MADISON, Wis. — The University of Wisconsin System wants the Legislature to allow it to begin classes sooner than Sept. 1 and borrow money, moves that UW President Ray Cross said Wednesday would help it deal with "unprecedented financial and planning challenges" due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Cross made the request for a special legislative session in a letter sent to Gov. Tony Evers, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald.
Evers spokeswoman Britt Cudaback encouraged the Legislature to get back to work.
"Given the uncertainty due to COVID-19, we anticipate that a number of state agencies will be looking for flexibilities," Cudaback said.
Fitzgerald said in a statement that the issues raised by Cross were complicated and he wanted to discuss them with senators. Vos spokeswoman Kit Beyer said Vos would discuss the request with Republicans who control the Assembly. Fitzgerald did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
The Legislature has adjourned its regular session for the year. Lawmakers did return in April to pass a bill in response to the COVID-19 outbreak and Evers said then that more work was to be done. The Legislature is widely expected to have to meet sometime this year to make budget cuts to deal with severe drop offs in state tax revenues due to the pandemic.
How severe the state budget shortfall will be is unknown. Between July 2019 and April, shortly after most nonessential businesses in the state were closed in reaction to the virus, tax collections were down $313 million compared to the same time period the year before. Even though businesses have slowly began to reopen, Evers has projected a $2 billion loss over the current budget that runs through June 2021.
The university system, like state government as a whole, is facing daunting budget challenges. It has already cut $40 million in a first wave of reductions ordered by Evers for the current fiscal year that ends on June 30. But more are coming. The flagship Madison campus alone is preparing for a loss of at least $120 million in revenue, with an unknown state-ordered cut on top of that.
Cross noted that campuses have already furloughed and laid off employees and reduced costs. In order to have more flexibility, Cross asked for three general law changes:
— Grant a one-time exemption to allow for the school year to start earlier than Sept. 1, the earliest date allowed under state law. Cross noted that given the expectation of a spike in COVID-19 cases in the fall, many colleges want to start classes earlier and use an expedited scheduled to complete the fall semester by Thanksgiving.
— Give the university the ability to take out a line of credit to allow it to borrow money to get through the budget crisis posed by the pandemic. Cross noted that other universities are taking this step. Any debt created would be the responsibility of the university to pay back, not the state, Cross said.
— Relieve UW of many reporting requirements to free up resources, a move Cross said would "enhance the ability of our universities to be open in the broadest way possible this fall." He asked for changes proposed in a bill that the Legislature rejected last session.
Fitzgerald, in reaction to Cross's request, noted concerns the Senate has had in the past with financial oversight of the university.
Cross is retiring as UW president in October.