Top Wisconsin Senate Republican says a deal is near for university pay raises. UW officials disagree

By HARM VENHUIZEN Associated Press/Report for America

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The leader of the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Senate said Wednesday that lawmakers are nearing a deal that would allow for long-blocked pay raises for Universities of Wisconsin employees to take effect and for funding to be released to pay for construction of a new engineering building.

But a UW spokesperson contested that account, saying an end to negotiations was not at hand.

Funding for the projects has been blocked amid an ongoing dispute primarily with Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who objects to UW spending public money on diversity, equity and inclusion programs and staff.

Vos blocked pay raises for UW employees in October, when a legislative committee he co-chairs approved increases for other state employees. Vos, the state’s top Republican, said he doesn’t believe the university system deserves more funding until it cuts its DEI programs.

Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday that Vos has been working with UW President Jay Rothman and other school officials for months “to come to a compromise” and that “they’re really close right now.”

“I’ve thought all along that the engineering building needs to be done. Obviously, we’ve set aside the money for the wage adjustments in the budget, intending to get those through,” LeMahieu said. “So yeah, I think we should see in the near future, hopefully, an agreement.”

However, UW system spokesperson Mark Pitsch said in an email that “no deal is imminent,” and there are “broader considerations” to be taken into account. Pitsch did not specify what those considerations were or what legislative leaders had asked for in closed-door negotiations.

Vos did not respond to an email and voicemail seeking comment Wednesday, but he has previously called for the UW system to cut its spending by $32 million — the amount Republicans estimate that UW’s 13 campuses spend on so-called DEI efforts — or give up its authority to create its own jobs, including DEI positions.

Democrats have railed against the decision to withhold raises that were approved earlier this year in the bipartisan state budget. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers sued the Legislature in October, accusing the Republican majority of obstructing basic government functions by not signing off on the raises.

The fight over DEI initiatives reflects a broader cultural battle playing out in states such as Florida and Texas, where Republican governors have signed laws banning the use of DEI factors in making admissions and employment decisions at public colleges and universities. Similar proposals have been made in nearly a dozen Republican-led Legislatures, including Wisconsin’s.

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Harm Venhuizen is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.