UW-Madison amping up pressure on Legislature to fund new Engineering building

UW-Madison officials are predicting it would cost at least $53 million more to construct a new College of Engineering building if the state Legislature continues to punt on its approval into the next budget cycle.

A campaign launched this week by the Wisconsin Alumni Association, a nonprofit arm of UW-Madison that facilitates much of its fundraising efforts, is encouraging business leaders and others around the state to contact their legislators and push them to take up legislation to construct a new engineering building.

The proposed engineering building, which was UW-Madison and the Universities of Wisconsin system’s top capital priority going into the last budget, was left out of the budget last spring after Joint Finance Committee co-chair Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, said Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ capital budget was unrealistic and spent beyond the state’s means.

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Evers proposed using the state’s $7 billion surplus to build nearly half of the capital projects included in his draft plan. Republicans largely declined that strategy, instead attempting to use the surplus to reduce income tax rates.

UW-Madison projects, as well as other UW system proposals, require legislative support because the UW Board of Regents lack the authority to borrow money. The Republican-controlled state legislature cut the UW system’s budget by $32 million and has been withholding wage raises from its employees over diversity, equity and inclusion staff and programming. Evers has since sued over it.

The proposed $347.3 million, 340,000-square-foot building would open more than 1,000 new seats and increase the college’s student population to 5,500. Student growth has stagnated as the college has run out of room; lab-stealing and physical space constraints are persistent problems for a college bursting at the seams. In the basement of Engineering Hall, space to store high-power magnetic motors is nearly maxed out.

If the building had been approved as part of the most recent budget, it was expected to open in 2028. Further delays could push any building opening into the next decade.

The denial was a stinging defeat for UW-Madison and the UW system, as the project had — and still has — wide approval from business industry and seemed to have bipartisan support in both legislative chambers. In recent months, UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin has hinted the engineering building’s saga was not over.

“We are continuing to work on the possibility of introducing a separate bill in this legislative session, potentially to support that project,” Mnookin told the Faculty Senate during its October meeting. “We have strong support from industry for this project — in fact, the strongest support we’ve ever had from industry for any building project we’ve ever taken on in recent history.”

As part of the new campaign, business CEOs from myriad industries signed a letter to the state Legislature, urging them to approve the project through separate legislation in this session. Among them are some of the state’s largest employers, including Judy Faulkner, of Epic; Bill Westrate, of American Family Insurance; and Eric Senn, of Johnson Controls.

“As Wisconsin employers, we are deeply disappointed by the decision of the Joint Finance Committee to not include the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering expansion in the 2023-25 capital budget. The UW-Madison College of Engineering has a significant impact on the state and its workforce,” the letter reads. “These engineering graduates are vital to the state’s economic development needs, but we need more of them to meet the increasing demand from our companies.”

Should the state wait until 2025 to approve the project, lawmakers should expect taxpayers will need to kick in an additional $53 million, to meet a new cost projection of $400 million, the letter says. But millions in private donations UW-Madison has already raised also could be at risk if the project doesn’t happen in this budget cycle.

“We also have $110 million committed toward this project, most of which will not stick around if we’re unable to go forward in this biennium,” Mnookin told the Faculty Senate. “So, if the legislature doesn’t decide to take it up, you’re taking that private money and really throwing it down the drain.”

Earlier this week, Evers directed $36.6 million of the state’s federal stimulus funds into capital projects also rejected by the Joint Finance Committee during the last budget cycle. Those projects include a Janesville sports and convention center, a new soccer stadium and African American history museum in Milwaukee, and upgrades for the Door County Peninsula Players.

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