Democrats on the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities voted against a Republican package of college affordability bills because they say they don't do enough.
Their opposition earned them scorn from at least one legislator backing the bills — Rep. John Macco, R-Ledgeview — who muttered, "Unbelievable," as Democrats voted against his bill.
Macco's proposal, approved by the committee on a party-line vote, would eliminate the cap on the state's tax deduction for student loan interest.
Macco and co-author Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, have said their bill would help an estimated 31,680 student loan borrowers. The largest average benefit would be seen by those making $60,000-$70,000 per year, who would receive a deduction of nearly $350 per year.
A person making between $30,000 and $40,000 per year would see a benefit of about $142, according to the authors.
Opponents of the legislation have argued those tax breaks are less per year than what some people pay toward their loans each month, and that they only help a small fraction of the estimated 815,000 Wisconsinites with student loan debt.
Democrats on the committee tried to amend the bill to include a proposal they've introduced several times over the last few years, that would allow borrowers to refinance their student loans at lower rates.
That amendment, along with all other Democratic amendments introduced, failed.
"While this effort at the present time to do something about helping education is at least a recognition of the problem, this doesn't come anywhere close to addressing the problems this state has with reference to education," said Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire. "The functional reality is that this is nothing but window dressing for campaign season. For three years we’ve been trying to get some attention and focus on this problem of student loan debt, and now we’re going to give them a tax break. I think this is wholly inadequate."
But Macco argued the Republican package is the "first step in a long series" of items legislators can consider to address college affordability.
"Unfortunately, committee members offered amendments that are prohibitively expensive and that would dilute the effectiveness of certain grants. They seem to have taken an ‘all-or-nothing approach’ — if we can’t solve all of our problems, we shouldn’t try solving any of them," said Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, in a statement. "But, as students and families paying down their debt know as well as anyone, you have to start somewhere."
Other bills in the package would make emergency grants available to University of Wisconsin and state technical college students who need them, increase funding for need-based tech school grants, fund positions to help connect students with internships and require schools to provide financial literacy information to students.
As the committee wrapped up its votes, Rep. Dianne Hesselbein, D-Middleton, said she'd like to assemble a group of lawmakers to tour the state's college campuses and talk to students about affordability. Several Republicans on the committee expressed interest in the effort.
"These are not an end-all. There's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all methodology," said committee chairman Rep. David Murphy, R-Greenville.
Murphy said he sees the initial effort as the difference between "doing 100 things 1 percent better versus one thing 100 percent better."
Gov. Scott Walker touted the set of six bills in his State of the State address last week, and has been visiting University of Wisconsin System and technical college campuses promoting the proposal.
Walker urged legislators to work quickly to pass the bills by the end of the legislative session, which only has a few months left.