Demand state agencies re-invent themselves, re-assess footprint

In the last 12 months, COVID and economic shut downs have forced businesses to re-invent themselves, shrinking their physical footprint and becoming more agile – all while having to offer a high quality product to consumers. 

Across Wisconsin and around the world, businesses were forced to suddenly shift their approach to stay alive. Restaurants dug deep to convert parking lots to patio seating and clothing companies shifted to making masks. Over the last year, these local employers, and the families who run them, had to make big sacrifices simply to survive.  

So why isn’t our state government doing the same?

Instead of looking at the private sector, Governor Tony Evers is taking the opposite approach. On Monday, he called for nearly $2.4 billion in capital projects, $1 billion of which would go to the UW System. This was done under the pre-pandemic model of delivering higher education and providing customer service. 

Worse, according to the Wisconsin State Journal, “$2 billion of Evers’ request would come from state taxpayer-supported borrowing” which means taxpayers will be paying it off for 20 years. Evers justified the spending by saying it’s the “up-keep of our infrastructure for longevity and public safety and in the future we want to build for our state.”

Maintenance makes sense so long as they are also evaluating the future of the brick and mortar building and their purpose. With payments and interest stretched out for decades, the capital budget should require that these investments be a wise use of money not only 20 months from now but for 20 years.  

Unfortunately, Evers’ capital budget (much like his budget for general operations unveiled last week) lacks the innovation that is needed in this new age. 

Start with the University of Wisconsin. Given that we live in a time where most UW students have been learning virtually and UW branch campus enrollment is at its lowest enrollment since 1973, why not build for the future while today ensuring that remote learning is actually valuable?  Higher education is increasingly going virtual with UW competing with Southern New Hampshire University and other models. Short and long term spending should reflect this.  

Instead, Evers’ is asking for: 

  • Over $15 million to “upgrade the physical condition and instructional capabilities of classrooms and laboratories”
  • $150 million for a new engineering building 
  • $116.7 million for a technology and education center at UW – River Falls 
  • $96.2 million for a technology and education center at UW – Green Bay

Is this justified now – and looking into the future  – when so many students are learning remotely and may continue to do so? Moreover, are brick and mortar projects, often conceived in the old model of higher education, being analyzed in the context of a new higher education model where the UW System institutions must compete with online, modern methods of education in the global marketplace?

The same theme also applies to the remainder of the capital budget. For example, outside of the requests for the UW System, Evers has requested: 

  • A new state office building in Milwaukee for an eye-popping $164 million
  • Another $4 million just to design new offices around the capitol in Madison
  • $40 million in state funds for a “Nature and Culture” museum in Milwaukee

At a time when so many people, including state government employees, are still working from home or looking at what it means to operate a business and provide customer service during a pandemic, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Evers Administration did not even consider shrinking the footprint of state government. Most employers in the private sector have realized that remote work and flexible office space will likely remain the norm even after the pandemic is over, so why hasn’t Governor Evers?

In the age of online learning for higher education, and the potential for enrollments to continue to decline, why is the UW system so expansive and expensive? Why does state government own so many buildings in Madison? Should we sell GEF 1 and other parking structures? Why is the Department of Natural Resources located in Madison – and not Wausau?  

Ultimately Evers’ capital budget – like his general operations budget – will need to be approved by the Joint Finance Committee in the legislature. JFC should require state agencies and the UW System to re-assess their footprints in this new age of virtual work and newly assess the Capital Budget process to address the practical changes happening all around us.

CJ Szafir is the president of the Institute for Reforming Government, a think tank based in Madison, WI.

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