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Illustration by Michael Byers In April 2013, state Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), one of the co-chairs of the state Legislature’s influential Joint Finance Committee, introduced a bill that would have drastically altered the governance and funding of the state’s technical college system. Sponsored along with now-retired state Rep. Garey Bies (R-Sister Bay), Assembly Bill 177 […]


Illustration by Michael Byers

In April 2013, state Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), one of the co-chairs of the state Legislature’s influential Joint Finance Committee, introduced a bill that would have drastically altered the governance and funding of the state’s technical college system. Sponsored along with now-retired state Rep. Garey Bies (R-Sister Bay), Assembly Bill 177 would have wrested a great deal of financial control from the local boards that currently oversee the trade schools, including Milwaukee Area Technical College, where conservatives have long protested the high salaries of some instructors.

Under Nygren’s bill, all employees at the schools would have become state employees. The local boards would have lost their authority to levy property taxes (a power they presently wield under a rigid cap), with the gap in funding filled by a 1 percent increase in the state sales tax. Not normally a fan of tax hikes, Nygren notes that Wisconsin’s income and property taxes rank high, relative to other Midwestern states, but its sales tax burden remains low.

The bill went on to die quietly in committee, going the way of many other bold proposals, but now Nygren and other Republicans have revived the fight. A “Legislative Council Study Committee” – essentially a panel of lawmakers meeting while the Legislature is out of session to hear testimony from experts and debate a particular topic – began meeting in July to study issues of tech school governance and funding. But it’s the latter that’s getting all of the attention.

Nygren’s plan received a helpful boost from Gov. Scott Walker in March, when his behemoth, pre-election tax cut plan allocated $406 million in state dollars to supplant tech school property taxes. Walker subsequently downplayed his intentions, but the legislation included a provision for the supplementary state money to continue beyond 2016. Various interest groups, including the Wisconsin Realtors Association, have argued before the study committee that the state should press on and drive down property taxes even further.

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“I think they’re identifying a problem that doesn’t exist,” says Michael Rosen, an economics professor at MATC and president of its teachers union. And he fears a slippery slope. “Once you get rid of the property tax, the next step would be to get rid of the local boards. The state is going to start demanding control.” MATC already commands a lion’s share of the $406 million in new state aid for trade schools – about $60.5 million, according to Christa Pugh, a fiscal analyst for the Legislative Fiscal Bureau – backfill for Walker’s tax cuts. Overall, the package “neither harmed nor benefited” the school, according to its CFO, Al Shoreibah, who says the only winners, so far, were payers of property taxes in the district.

The Milwaukee-area system and the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce have both argued that local control allows the trade schools to remain agile. MATC President Vicki Martin offers up a recent example: When a number of trucking companies approached the school to complain about a shortage of certified drivers in the state, MATC created a new training program in just three months, won state approval and began enrolling students.

“That’s how responsive we can be when we’re allowed to operate the way we need to,” she says. Centralizing governance in Madison would slow down individual schools, Martin insists, by adding a “layer of bureaucracy.”

Nygren admits that “shifting governance to Madison is probably one of the less desirable parts of the conversation,” but he’s convinced that Wisconsin leaders, like those in other states, can make such an overhaul palatable. “I think there are ways it could be done.” ■

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