FILE - University of Wisconsin-Madison

Bascom Hall on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

(The Center Square) – Republican lawmakers are pushing back on the University of Wisconsin's request for a $1 billion line of credit and other '"freedoms" to start the next school year. 

UW System President Ray Cross on Wednesday requested a line of credit worth more than $1 billion, as well as a special legislative session to free the university's hand in dealing with the coronavirus. 

"As we plan for fall semester, our universities are determined to find creative solutions to safely deliver quality education to students on-campus and through alternative delivery models," Cross wrote in a letter to top lawmakers. "However, we face significant financial and operational challenges that are made much worse by the ever-changing nature of the pandemic."

The UW System has said for months that the coronavirus will cost the university at least $120 million. That's assuming that students come back to campus this fall, and that there are no more problems. None of that is guaranteed. 

Cross said the UW System is not alone in its cash crunch. 

“As seen throughout higher education, our costs are increasing, and revenues are decreasing dramatically," Cross wrote. 

The plan that Cross is suggesting would allow the university to borrow money on its own, as opposed to through the state. Cross says that would make the debt the university's responsibility. 

But Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, who heads the Senate's committee on universities, says that means the university would also have to find a way to pay that money back. He is skeptical of that. 

"The massive line-of-credit would be tied to a funding source which is a common practice in issuing debt to public institutions. In the case of the UW-System, this debt would either have to be guaranteed by the state or would be guaranteed by tuition and fees," Nass said. "Such an action could set the course for potentially huge increases in tuition and fees on financially strapped families to retire this debt over many years."

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said some of Cross' ideas have been requested by the UW System in the past and turned down by legislators. 

"The Senate has had concerns in the past about lack of financial oversight. These are complicated issues that I’ll be discussing with our caucus before determining if it’s necessary to move forward," Fitzgerald said in a statement. 

Nass too is concerned about how the UW System has managed its budget, and it's desire to raise tuition on students. 

"I also fear the debt would be abused by the UW System to avoid necessary reforms and adopting further cost saving measures," Nass said. "It is simply too early in this economic crisis to consider drastic levels of debt for operational purposes. Such an action should only be considered as a last resort and not rushed for political expediency.”

The Center Square Correspondent

An industry veteran with two decades of experience in media, Benjamin Yount reports on Illinois and Wisconsin statewide issues for The Center Square.