Bernier and several other rural GOP legislators, including Reps. Warren Petryk of the town of Pleasant Valley, Tom Larson of the Dunn County town of Colfax and John Murtha of Baldwin, supported a successful effort in 2011 to amend the state budget to allow the existing WiscNet system to continue for two years. At the time, they sent a letter to Assembly leaders calling for the compromise "to ensure that the citizens in rural Wisconsin have broadband Internet service."
Bernier said she signed the letter because she didn't want her local schools, libraries and hospitals left in the lurch but even then had a gut feeling that "we're on a slippery slope of using millions and millions of taxpayer dollars to build a system that competes against our private-sector businesses that provide Internet service."
While Vinehout characterized Republicans as believing anything that can be private should be private, she asserted it makes no sense to take the UW System out of the equation in the administration of WiscNet.
"The system is clearly working for our schools and local government," she said. "Low-cost Internet for public entities is clearly in the public's interest."
The audit made several recommendations, including that UW System officials explain by July 1 their plan for obtaining Internet services, disclose by Oct. 1 the extent to which UW institutions support grant-funded networks, improve documentation of financial agreements and recover by June 30 any balance remaining from $2.3 million in prepayments it made to WiscNet for services in the 2011-13 biennium. The auditors said that setup could violate statutes generally prohibiting state agencies from using annual appropriations to pay for services in future years.
Esbeck expressed dismay at what he called the "illegal" payments that were part of a "fast-and-loose relationship" between the UW System and WiscNet.
"The UW's shoddy record keeping is just the tip of the iceberg," Esbeck said in a news release. "The institutional arrogance revealed in the report shows a disregard for state statutes and the irresponsible use of scarce taxpayer resources."
Bernier said she also was concerned about the findings of poor record keeping.
In a seven-page response to the audit, UW System President Kevin Reilly promised to implement new policies to ensure its practices are in line with state statutes and the audit's recommendations regarding prepayments and written contracts.
Reilly also stressed the audit found no evidence the UW System subsidized WiscNet -- instead crediting WiscNet's cooperative business model for its ability to charge lower prices than the private sector -- and said the law change scheduled to take effect July 1 would result in multimillion-dollar increases in network costs, to be borne by students and taxpayers, and negatively affect the UW's ability to participate in broader research networks and fulfill its teaching mission.
Law Change Sought
"We ask the Legislature to modify the statutes in order to avoid these crippling, unintended consequences," Reilly wrote.
Even if UW institutions are forced to end their WiscNet memberships, as called for under current law, Wilson said he would expect WiscNet to continue to provide the same level of service for remaining members.
"The rest of us will miss our university members terribly, but nobody will miss a beat. We're good to go," Wilson said, calling it a shame that costs would rise for the UW System under that scenario because it would have to duplicate existing services.
Whether the Republican-controlled Legislature is willing to revisit the law is unknown at this point.
Harsdorf, chairwoman of the Senate's Universities and Technical Colleges Committee, said the focus should be on ensuring the UW System complies with state law and communities still have access to high-speed Internet.
What is clear, Bernier said, is that the relationship between the UW System and WiscNet will get much scrutiny in the next few months.
"It is a big deal coming down the pike," Bernier said.
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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