PEWAUKEE, Wis. (AP) - Gov. Scott Walker announced a series of legislative proposals Monday aimed at making college more affordable, unveiling plans that include removing the cap on tax-deductible student loan interest, increasing need-based assistance programs at technical colleges and bringing on more internship coordinators across the state.
The timing of the announcement, just before legislators begin the push to wrap up their two-year session and hit the campaign trail and eight days before the State of the State address, underscores how important the issue has become politically. The Republican governor, however, framed his proposals as the next step in his efforts to keep college costs down.
Walker repeatedly touted his moves to freeze University of Wisconsin System tuition for four consecutive years and said they halted years of significant increases. “The best thing we’ve done over the last four years is freeze tuition,” he said.
Democratic Sen. Jennifer Shilling, meanwhile, said in a statement Monday that Walker has refused to meet with members of her party about their plan to allow students to refinance school loan debt. “Wisconsin families are struggling, and it’s disappointing that Gov. Walker refuses to work across the aisle to solve the challenges facing our middle class,” the Democratic leader said.
Walker, however, said his office has studied the idea and that it hasn’t worked elsewhere. “Instead,” he said, “we’re looking at ways of keeping costs down in the first place.”
College costs have become a key issue in national politics. During Walker’s presidential run last year, he sparred with Democrat Hillary Clinton over his plan to cut University of Wisconsin system funding by $300 million during the two-year budget cycle. The UW System budget was ultimately trimmed by $250 million, and Walker pushed back against Clinton’s criticism by holding up his tuition freezes as examples of specific action he has taken on the issue.
In Wisconsin, Shilling and other Democrats say Walker’s moves haven’t been enough and that the $19 billion in student loan debt held by more than 800,000 people has been a drag on the state’s economy.
Despite the tuition freezes, college costs haven’t remained static.
At UW-Madison, for example, student fees have gone up about 3 percent and room and board costs have increased about 10 percent over the last four school years, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. At UW-Milwaukee, student fees jumped nearly 23 percent and room and board expenses rose nearly 7 percent.
Walker cited the same office, however, saying that in the 10 years before his freezes went into place, tuition went up annually at a rate of more than 8 percent.
Walker said lifting the tax-deduction cap, which is currently $2,500, would cost about $5.2 million, and his plan to increase need-based assistance at technical colleges would cost about $1 million and help about 1,000 students.
He said the initiatives would be paid for using part of the state’s nearly $136 million surplus.
Associated Press writer Todd Richmond in Madison contributed to this report.
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