A program that guarantees free tuition to lower-income students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison would be expanded to all UW System universities under a budget request unveiled Tuesday, Aug. 18.

The Bucky's Tuition Promise program offers free tuition and fees to Wisconsin residents whose household income is $56,000 or less. In its first year in 2018, about 800 UW-Madison students qualified. Under a new proposal from UW System President Tommy Thompson, the expanded program would become the Wisconsin Tuition Promise, and would apply to students at any UW campus who come from households making $60,000 or less.

The proposal is part of an ambitious budget request that would increase the UW System's budget by 3.5%, or $95.7 million, in the 2021-23 biennial budget.

Other budget initiatives include student loan forgiveness programs for Wisconsin teachers; support for the state's Freshwater Collaborative program in freshwater science and technology; and the creation of 20 county-based agriculture positions in the Division of Extension, formerly UW-Extension.

The UW System will separately seek $1.2 billion for its capital budget for building renovations.

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In a call with reporters Tuesday, Thompson said he was eager to make the case to legislators that funding the UW System was a good investment for the state.

"I'm sick and tired of apologizing for the University of Wisconsin," Thompson said. "We're an asset, and I think the people of the state of Wisconsin recognize that. And I'm going to do my part to sell this message all over the state."

The requests are the first step in a lengthy process toward UW funding. They will go to the Board of Regents on Thursday, and if approved, will be forwarded to the state Department of Administration. Gov. Tony Evers will make a budget request, and legislators ultimately will approve the state budget that funds everything from roads and K-12 schools to the state's higher education system.

It's likely to be a bumpy road. The coronavirus pandemic, which has put tens of thousands of Wisconsinites out of work, has also meant sharp reductions in tax collections. That could mean budget cuts in the state's next biennial budget.

A new economic rescue package under discussion in Congress would have included federal aid to state and local governments to help compensate for lost revenue in the pandemic. But talks in Washington fell apart in early August, and lawmakers and the Trump administration have not indicated that they will resume any time soon.

The UW System’s budget was cut by more than $40 million at the onset of the pandemic, and Evers has said additional cuts are likely this year. The system has instituted employee furloughs at all campuses, and this month Thompson announced layoffs and other cuts aimed at reducing the UW System administration costs by $10 million.

Thompson, the Republican former governor of Wisconsin, was hired as interim president of the UW System in June, partly in the hope that he could build bridges with Wisconsin's Republican-controlled Legislature, which has overseen budget cuts to the system for nearly a decade. On Tuesday's call, Thompson said he'll argue that the best way for the state to recover from the pandemic's economic downturn is with new investments in the UW System.

"I'm sorry that we have to take another cut," Thompson said. "But I'm looking forward to telling ... the university's story to the governor, to the (Department of Administration), to the Legislature and to the people of Wisconsin."

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