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UW-Madison tuition freeze, DNR scientists up for key vote

University of Wisconsin - Madison
Posted at 2:57 PM, May 28, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-28 15:57:05-04

MADISON (AP) — Proposals to continue a University of Wisconsin-Madison tuition freeze for another two years and restore previously cut scientist positions at the Department of Natural Resources were both up for key votes Tuesday in the Legislature's budget committee.

The Joint Finance Committee was scheduled to vote on UW-Madison funding, expanding anti-pollution programs at the DNR and raising pay for prosecutors and public defenders. The Republican-controlled committee is making changes to the state budget submitted by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers as it prepares to send the two-year spending plan to the full Legislature, likely in June.

Republicans are expected to go along with Evers' call to continue the UW-Madison tuition freeze for another two years, but they will likely pare back the $110 million in additional funding Evers had for the university. Nearly half of that would be used to pay for the tuition freeze.

Evers proposed giving UW-Madison $45 million to attract and retain students in high-demand areas including science, technology, engineering, math, nursing and health care, and business.

The committee was also voting on whether to give the university $10 million to pay for a program that would establish fellowships and loan programs for nursing students who commit to teach for three years in the university's nursing program.

In the area of natural resources, the committee was considering whether to add five scientist positions at the DNR and create a Bureau of Natural Resources Science. The scientists would research areas related to water quality and contamination, all funded by grants.

The Evers proposal would restore five of 18 research scientist positions cut by then-Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2015. The cuts were done to stop the department from studying climate change and the impact of mining on pollution as Walker and legislative Republicans were trying to lure a mining company to the state.

The DNR argues that adding the positions and creating the new bureau would expand its ability to conduct scientific research and incorporate science and research into its policy making. The new positions would be charged with researching water pollution, particularly from polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

Those man-made chemicals are contaminants involved in a variety of industrial and consumer products, including fast-food wrappers and stain-resistant sprays. Contamination from PFAS has been documented in over 170 sites in 40 states, including Wisconsin. But the state DNR said it can't engage in research or provide information about PFAS contamination in the state without additional staff.

Democrats have introduced a bill calling on the DNR to set standards for the contaminant in drinking water, groundwater, surface water, air and soil, and to establish monitoring requirements. Republicans have a more limited bill dealing only with limiting the use of PFAS in firefighting foam.

The budget committee was also voting on whether to approve Evers' plan to spend $200,000 on determining the extent and locations of PFAS contamination in Wisconsin.

Other Evers' proposals up for approval include:

— borrowing $25 million additional to remove contaminants from sediment in waterways in Milwaukee, Sheboygan, Marinette, Superior and Portage.

— adding five full-time positions to oversee permitting, inspection and enforcement of concentrated animal feeding operations and increase the fee paid by CAFOs from $345 a year to $660.

— increasing reimbursement rates for lawyers who offer public defender services from $40 to $70 per hour by 2020.

— raising the salaries of public defenders and prosecutors by 2% each of the next two years, in line with what other state employees receive.

— adding about 20 assistant district attorney positions across the state.