By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON – Gov. Scott Walker said he wants to increase transparency and accountability in Wisconsin’s embattled public higher education system in his latest round of appointments to the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents,
To that end, Walker appointed former state
auditorJanice Mueller, who retired from that post in 2011, and former GOP state Sen. and Lt. Gov. Margaret Farrow, a Republican, to serve seven-year terms on the board. The governor also appointed Josh Inglett, aUniversity of Wisconsin-Platteville student, to a two-year term.
Walker’s appointees are expected to be confirmed by the Senate Wednesday. Their terms would begin immediately and they’d act on UW policy decisions at July’s regents meeting if confirmed.
With questions surrounding what lawmakers see as the UW System’s robust reserves and ongoing concerns about accounting transparency, is Walker sending a message to the board in his appointment of an auditor and a former senator with a reputation as a budget hawk?
A series of controversies dogged the UW System in recent months, leading Sen.Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, co-chair of the legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee to publicly question why UW System President Kevin Reilly still has a job.
Before the reserve flap, Walker had proposed a $183.8 million increase for the system, but an irked budget committee ended up slashing the money — and then some.
The committee’s move followed reports that showed the system had reserve accounts of more than $1 billion, including $648 million in unrestricted cash and more than $400 million in tuition balance.
The Board of Regents had increased base resident undergraduate tuition by 5.5 percent each year from 2007-08 to 2012-13, helping build the reserves.
With that in mind, Rep. Samantha Kerkman, R-Randall, co-chair of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, said she was “overjoyed” in learning of Walker’s appointments.
Kerkman has been one of the most vocal critics of the UW System and its reserve flap, frustrated with financial mismanagement revealed in legislative audits.
In January, the Legislative Audit Bureau found the UW System overpaid for pension contributions and health insurance premiums by almost $33 million over the past two years.
Kerkman told Wisconsin Reporter at the time she was angry as a taxpayer and former UW student.
In a phone interview Tuesday, she said, more than anything else, her constituents want to know what’s up with the UW System.
When she retired, Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, praised Mueller, whom he described as a “champion for sound public policy and the taxpayers” of Wisconsin.
“During her time at the bureau, Jan has worked to save the taxpayers millions of dollars, directly impacted countless legislative proposals, and made programs spanning the breadth of state government more efficient and effective,” Barca wrote in May 2011.
In a phone interview with Wisconsin Reporter, the soft-spoken Mueller said she’s honored and humbled by the appointment, and if confirmed by the Senate Wednesday morning, is ready for the challenge.
While she declined to comment on the recent highly publicized issues at the UW System, Mueller acknowledged that “everyone involved (with the university) is concerned.”
She said she’ll “seek to serve all the university’s constituencies.”
“I think it’s important that the board does not try to micromanage the university,” Mueller said. “I have a great deal of experience of financial management in state of Wisconsin. I am pledging that (UW’s) financial management will be strong, open and transparent.”
The Associated Press reported last week that UW regents have blamed a lack of transparency from university officials for the finance committee-imposed budget cuts
and tuition freeze.
“We need to work with the legislature to make sure they understand that the funds we are entrusted with are being used as well as possible, and are being reported in a way that’s as transparent as possible,” Regent Tim Higgins told AP.
Mueller said she hopes her experience working with the legislature will help those lines of communication that seemingly broke down, at least publicly, over operations and management of taxpayer and student dollars.
Still, the appointments are not an inoculation against potential future mismanagement, a point not lost on Kerkman.
“People have a connection with UW because they attended, or their kids are going there, or someone else in the family. People want confidence that their tax dollars are being used appropriately and right now people are lacking that confidence,” Kerkman said.
She said Mueller and Farrow bring credibility and institutional knowledge to the Board of Regents, whose members have been questioned by legislators following the recent spate of fiscal scandals.
Mueller has a track record in unearthing problems in the UW System.
In a 2007 audit, Mueller and her team brought attention to the $28 million spent by UW on a human resources integrated technology system that was never completed.
“UW System had estimated that APBS would be implemented in January 2005 at a cost of $19.7 million. Instead, the project was canceled in July 2006, after at least $28.4 million had been spent,” the April 2007 Audit Bureau Report noted. “However, this amount excludes significant staffing costs incurred by individual UW institutions, for which neither the institutions nor UW System has separately accounted.”
By February 2005, the system estimated full implementation would cost as much as $62.6 million. That raised questions at the Capitol about stewardship of taxpayer money.
“Janice’s extensive résumé and expertise with state finances will bring additional oversight and transparency to the UW System,” Walker said in a statement. “I’m confident she will make a fantastic regent and will use her depth of experience to improve the UW System.”
Mueller served as state auditor from 1998 to 2011, where she led financial and program evaluations of state agencies. She had previously worked as a fiscal analyst at the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.