A last-minute change in the state budget would force the University of Wisconsin to return almost $40 million in U.S. broadband grants.

According to an article by Deborah Ziff at the Wisconsin State Journal:

Under pending legislation, UW System would be forced to give back more than $37 million in grants to extend broadband to rural and under-served areas. The university system would also be forbidden from participating in WiscNet, a statewide cooperative that brings high-speed Internet to most schools and libraries across the state.

[Vice chancellor for administration at UW-Madison Darrell] Bazzell said it would make UW-Madison “the only research university in the country not allowed to participate in some of these research networks.”

This change came as a result of amendments to the state bill containing the budget for the university system for the next two years.

The reason for the change? Well, according to a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Republican lawmakers… [said] that the university should not be in the telecommunications business. Telecommunications companies themselves cast the debate as a question of competition. Bill Esbeck, executive director of the Wisconsin State Telecommunications Association, was quoted on Channel3000 saying that WiscNet should be allowed to run only without financial support from the University of Wisconsin.

Perhaps I’m missing something here but it seems that if WiscNet exists to bring high-speed Internet to public schools and libraries, “competition” isn’t really the most important thing to promote. WiscNet should probably be getting all the financial support it can, especially if that support comes ultimately from the federal government, not the taxpayers of Wisconsin.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer