Traditional hat toss (copy)

Gov. Scott Walker is the target of a graphic new ad launched by three liberal groups who say he's been the "worst governor in America" for the country's student debt problem.

The online ad, called "Hold Your Breath," depicts a person drowning in open water while "Pomp and Circumstance" plays, an image the groups say is meant to symbolize the plight of student loan borrowers. At the end of the ad, a mortarboard washes ashore.

"Americans are drowning in student debt," the ad says. "Governor Walker's Advice? HOLD YOUR BREATH." 

A landing page for the ad hosts a petition, urging Walker to support legislation that would allow student loans to be refinanced at lower rates.

The ad comes from One Wisconsin Now, Wisconsin Jobs Now and the Agenda Project Action Fund.

AP Action is the group behind the 2011 "Throw Granny Off the Cliff" ad, which went after U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan for his Medicare proposal. Madison's WMTV-TV declined to air the ad, which showed a Ryan lookalike shoving an elderly woman off a cliff.

"Scott Walker has been the worst governor in America for the student debt crisis," said One Wisconsin Now executive director Scot Ross in a statement. "He gutted higher education by over $600 million, kept tens of thousands from financial aid and ignored a plan to allow hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin student loan borrowers to refinance their loans at lower interest rates, just like you can a mortgage."

Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, and Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine, introduced a bill in 2013 that would create a Wisconsin Student Loan Refinancing Authority, modeled after the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority. The authority would be charged with creating a system to buy federal and private loans and refinance them at a lower rate.

The bill was given a public hearing but failed to pass the Assembly. Hansen and Mason introduced a similar version of the legislation again in May.

Earlier in May, a proposal modeled after the Democratic bill was voted down on a party-line vote in the Joint Finance Committee

Republicans on the committee objected to the creation of a loan refinancing authority, but said there are some aspects of the proposal they might support as separate legislation.

Since the bill was first introduced last session, the number of Wisconsinites with student loan debt has grown from 753,000 to 815,000 and the average debt for someone with a bachelor's degree has increased from about $22,000 to $28,400. Total student debt carried by Wisconsin residents is a little more than $19 billion, according to White House figures.

Rather than discussing student loan debt or financial aid directly, Walker has touted his tuition freeze for the University of Wisconsin System as a positive step in helping make college affordable.

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"In order to make college, and the opportunities it provides, more affordable and more accessible for students and hardworking families across our state, Gov. Walker froze tuition for two years in the 2013-15 budget, the first two-year tuition freeze in UW System history," said Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick in an email. "Gov. Walker’s 2015-17 budget continues the tuition freeze for an additional two years."

The governor has argued the tuition freeze, along with added flexibilities for UW System administrators, helps balance his proposed $300 million cut to the system. The Joint Finance Committee last month reduced the size of the cut by $50 million, and kept in place the tuition freeze.

During his 2014 re-election campaign, Walker said he would be willing to look at the refinancing proposal, but questioned whether it was "more than just politics."

"If it was a good idea, I’m sure (Democrats) would have passed it four years ago when they controlled the Assembly and the Senate and the governorship," he told reporters in September 2014, the Racine Journal Times reported. "They not only did not do it then, they presided over a state government that saw 5.5 percent average annual increases in tuition."

Patrick said Walker's tuition freeze shows a "stark contrast" from his predecessor, Democratic former Gov. Jim Doyle.

Patrick noted that Doyle cut $250 million from the UW System in his 2003-05 state budget.

"Instead of providing any tools or flexibilities, that budget allowed the UW System to raise tuition by up to $150 million – which led to an average 18 percent tuition increase in the 2003-2004 school year," Patrick said.

Patrick also argued that the cut under Doyle amounted to a larger percentage of the UW System's overall annual budget than the one proposed by Walker.

"Additionally, Gov. Walker has made significant investments in worker training, technical colleges, created the new UW Flexible Option program, as well as Wisconsin Fast Forward to assist Wisconsinites who need to get a degree or finish their degrees and thrive in the workforce," Patrick said.

Critics of the tuition freeze argue that it could lead to a steep tuition hike once it's lifted, and that it doesn't address college graduates carrying debt. 

"During his tenure, Scott Walker has repeatedly gutted the Wisconsin public university system, once the best in the nation, through these egregious budget cuts," said AP Action director of communications Erik Altieri in a statement. "Americans need to take just one look at what he did to higher education in Wisconsin and it immediately becomes clear that he is the most anti-public education governor in the country. His proposals have been disastrous for Wisconsin higher education and its students."

See the ad here:

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Jessie Opoien is the Capital Times' opinion editor. She joined the Cap Times in 2013, covering state government and politics for the bulk of her time as a reporter. She has also covered music, culture and education in Madison and Oshkosh.