- Associated Press - Monday, March 28, 2016

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Gov. Scott Walker signed a series of bills Monday aimed at college affordability and announced the creation of a student loan debt specialist position in the state Department of Financial Institutions.

The four bills increase grants for technical college students; create grants to help two-year students deal with financial emergencies; require the Department of Workforce Development to coordinate internships with colleges and employers; and require colleges to provide students with annual information about their debt levels.

“One of the most important things we can do for higher education in our state moving forward is to focus on making college more affordable for our students and families,” Walker said in a statement.

Democrats have criticized the package as merely a campaign talking point, especially after Republicans in the Legislature cut $250 million in funding for the University of Wisconsin System from the state budget. A Democratic alternative that would have allowed students to refinance their loans went nowhere in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, called the Republican bills “anemic” and said in a statement they don’t provide any relief for students.

“Republicans did not even pass the most significant of these weak bills, which at least would have provided a tax break to a small percentage of those with significant debt,” Barca said.

That proposal from Walker would have lifted the $2,500 cap on tax-deductible student loan interest. It passed the Assembly, but the state Senate didn’t take it up, leaving it to die.

Walker signed the four bills throughout the state Monday, stopping at Mid-State Technical College in Wisconsin Rapids, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Wisconsin Technical College System President Morna Foy said the increased grant funding for technical college students will lead to increased access and success.

“Employers in every sector and region rely on the talent of technical college graduates for the success of their businesses, more than ever given the demographic challenges facing Wisconsin,” she said in a statement.

The $500,000 increase in technical college grant funding this year and next comes from allowing the Technical College System Board to solicit contributions from technical college district boards, supplemented by up to $1 million in general purpose revenue. The financial emergency grant program creates a new appropriation of $130,000.

The new student loan debt specialist will serve as an outreach coordinator, creating a website and linking student loan borrowers with information about debt management, investment and educational options, according to a news release. The role will be filled by Cheryl Weiss, who has worked with the department for more than 15 years. The department reallocated an existing full-time role for the position, so expenses will be absorbed within the Office of Financial Literacy’s budget.

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Follow Bryna Godar on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bgodar

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