Both houses of the Wisconsin state Legislature have rejected calls to remove language that would expel the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism from its offices on the University of Wisconsin campus and bar UW employees from working with the Center as part of their job duties.
That means the provision, inserted into the state budget bill by the Legislature’s powerful budget review committee in the early morning hours of June 5, will become law unless it is vetoed by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
Walker has not indicated what he might veto from the budget. He did tell a Madison television station, in a June 17 interview, “That’s something we’re going to look closely at,” according to notes taken by WISC-TV reporter Jessica Arp.
UW officials, including interim Chancellor David Ward, have urged Walker to veto the measure.
State Assembly Democrats drafted an amendment that would have removed the budget provision regarding the Center. But, in the end, the party’s leadership decided against offering any amendments, believing “there’s no hope for this budget,” according to Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha.
On June 20, the Wisconsin state Senate voted 17-16 against an amendment to remove this language from the budget. The vote was along party lines, except for state Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, who joined Democrats in the narrow minority.
The Senate vote followed several minutes of debate from members of both parties, as recorded by WisconsinEye, beginning at the 4:50 mark.
Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, speaking first, referred to the provision’s “maniacal nature,” asking, “Why are legislative Republicans attacking bipartisan investigative journalism? What are they trying to hide?”
Larson suggested the action may have been prompted by the Center’s September 2011 series, “The Selling of School Choice,” which he characterized, a bit inaccurately, as documenting millions of dollars in spending from choice proponents to Republicans. (Actually, money has gone to choice supporters in both parties.)
“It’s kind of interesting that in the same budget that expands vouchers statewide we are trying to remove the investigative body that broke the story of why vouchers continue to expand in our state,” Larson said.
He called on Republican supporters of the provision to explain their position. “If any of the Republicans would like to stand up and say why they want less investigative journalism, when they’re breaking stories about the Waltons dumping money into their campaigns, I’m eager to hear it.” (That was a reference to contributions from Walmart family heirs.)
Larson’s call was answered.
Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, said she had “nothing against the Center” but felt that it was inappropriate for it to receive assistance from the university.
“The issue is having a nonprofit in the UW System … having the taxpayer pay for that, when it’s a nonprofit,” Darling said. “How do you decide which nonprofit is going to get into the UW, have free rent and the taxpayer is going to pick up the tab? That’s the issue.”
The Center and the UW-Madison have a “facilities use agreement.” The Center gets the use of two small rooms in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, in exchange for being a resource to students and facility. This has included working intensively with journalism classes to produce stories, some of which have focused on the UW.
The Center also pays about $40,000 a year to its UW-Madison student interns, plus more than $75,000 on their travel and research expenses, supervision, editing, and distribution and promotion of their work.
No direct taxpayer funds go to the Center, and approval of the measure kicking it off of campus will not save taxpayers any money, Andy Hall, the Center’s executive director, has said. The Center’s $400,000 budget is funded by private foundations, individuals and corporations.
The next speaker, Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, talked about how Thomas Jefferson once stated a preference for newspapers over government, if only one could exist. He called Darling’s claims about whether a nonprofit has access to the university a “smokescreen.”
“It is an attempt to squash free speech of journalism,” Cullen said. “We ought to listen to Thomas Jefferson, and not listen to the people that are running this place today.”
Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, closed out the proceedings, making two main points in defense of the provision.
First, Grothman said he did considered the provision regarding the Center to be a genuine fiscal issue, not a policy issue, as critics have said.
“What we are doing is saying is that the UW-Madison cannot spend money on something,” Grothman said. “And in that regard it is fiscal. Certainly (it is) a lot more fiscal than a lot of other things in this budget.”
Secondly, Grothman framed the provision as being about the separation of press and state.
“It’s important for the press to be free and independent,” he said. “And I think when you have government, or in this case the university, something I think should be subject to a lot of articles, because it’s such a big part of our state. I don’t think it’s necessarily a healthy thing to have an independent center financially dependant, or partially dependent, on the university, something I think it should be reporting about.”
The Center has regularly reported on UW issues, including its 2010 investigation on the failings of the UW System’s response to campus sexual assaults, and its 2012 investigation, reported by students in a UW journalism class, which found serious gaps in the UW System campuses’ handling of campus mental health issues.
More recently, the Center has published a story by UW-Madison journalism student intern Rory Linnane on how many UW System campuses have inadequate systems for notifying students in emergencies.
And just this week it reported on UW System’s selection of an Internet service provider, which some Republican members of the state Legislature have called into question.
Grothman went on to say that while many taxpayers in his districts had a problem with certain news outlets and considered them biased, he personally lamented the decline in news coverage.
“One of the tragedies of our time is that newspapers are closing” and having to lay off much of their staff, he said.
As for the Center, Grothman noted that it receives “hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in independent donations,” adding that there were plenty of others places in Madison where it could rent office space. He did not refer to the part of the provision that would bar UW employees from working with the Center as part of their job duties.
Indeed, Grothman said he hoped that the Center’s work would continue: “Maybe I’ll even show up at a fundraiser sometime, for the Center. But I do think it is not healthy to have government, or in this case the University of Wisconsin, partially funding individual news gathering organizations.”
Both Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television receive substantial state financial support, and many news organizations receive free space in the Capitol press room.
“To say we are muzzling this organization is just plain mischaracterizing what is going on,” Grothman said in conclusion. “We are taking an independent news organization and saying we are not going to subsidize you.”
The roll call was then taken.
Hall said he remains optimistic that Gov. Walker will “remove this ill-conceived, secretly hatched measure from the budget. There’s still time to do the right thing for students, and for democracy.”