State Representative Garey Bies is finally moving forward with an idea he had in his first term to change up how the state’s technical colleges are funded and overseen.
The state’s 16 technical colleges are currently funded through local property taxes. But if a new Bies-authored bill, Assembly Bill 117, is passed by the state legislature and a state referendum, technical college funding will instead be raised via a 1 percent increase in the state’s sales tax.
Bies said he’s looking to address the concerns of property owners who feel they’re paying too much money into a system they don’t use, specifically citing the fact that property owners on Washington Island, which is located about two hours from Northeast Wisconsin Technical College’s (NWTC) Sturgeon Bay campus, paid about $540,000 into the tech college system last year.
When you add in the fact that technical college taxes have been on the rise for a number of years, said Bies, it becomes clear that something needs to be done.
“We get little to no service for the money we’re paying,” he said. “This has been an interest of the first Assembly district for a number of years, and I believe it’s a good time to bring it forward.”
Under the new bill, technical college expenditures would now come out of the state’s general fund, functioning as the UW-system does currently.
Bies said this is a boon because it will hold technical colleges accountable to elected state officials, as well as a state board that will be created and appointed by the governor. He thinks the current oversight structure, where local technical colleges are held accountable to boards appointed by county officials, doesn’t do enough to represent taxpayers’ interests.
“Right now we have an unelected board who answers to nobody,” said Bies. “We don’t have any local control.”
But technical college presidents disagree with Bies’ assessment. NWTC President Dr. Jeffrey Rafn said he understands Bies’ issue with the property tax, but believes shaking up the way the technical college system is structured is a mistake.
“Our boards are appointed by the county chairs, who are accountable to the people,” said Rafn. “And they have to respond to the local community because so much of our funding is coming from them, which makes us sensitive to the needs of the community.”
Rafn believes the loss of local control that would come from moving to a state-centralized system could hurt individual technical colleges. As for fixing the property tax issue, Rafn said there are many other avenues to pursue.
“I think it’s the wrong approach to the problem he’s trying to address,” said Rafn. “We could use a homestead credit or a differential evaluation of property. There are other ways to go about doing this.”
The bill has been referred to the assembly’s Committee on Colleges and Universities. Bies expects a full hearing on the bill won’t happen until August at the earliest.