Assembly Republicans quashed an effort by Democrats on Tuesday to pull a student loan refinancing proposal from committee and take it up on the floor.
Lawmakers still debated the merits of the bill, which Democrats have tried unsuccessfully to pass in two consecutive legislative sessions, before voting against bringing it to the floor.
The "Higher Ed, Lower Debt" bill, authored by Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine, and Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, 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 lower rates. Under the bill, borrowers would also be able to deduct student loan payments from their income taxes.
Mason argued on Tuesday that people have been lead to believe if they work hard, go to college and play by the rules, they can achieve the American dream. But the burden of student loan debt is preventing many adults from starting a family, buying a home or buying a new car, he said.
"Student loan debt is now the dark cloud on that middle class dream," Mason said. "And this bill is a modest step forward to do something about those millions of families in Wisconsin that are dealing with student loan debt, sometimes for decades."
In anticipation of the Democrats' plan to force the floor debate, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, offered to move the bill from the Ways and Means Committee to the Joint Finance Committee, in the spirit of "wiping the slate clean." Vos said he was inspired by newly-elected House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, who called for civility in a speech last week.
The Joint Finance Committee rejected a proposal modeled after the bill in May, introduced during debate over the state budget.
A similar version of the bill introduced last session was given a public hearing, but failed to pass the Assembly. This version was given a Senate committee hearing, but has not had the same in an Assembly committee.
Several Republicans who spoke on Tuesday agreed student loan debt is a problem in need of a solution, but shot down the Democratic proposal.
Vos argued the bill contains several "serious drafting errors," including one that would create a double tax deduction, and said fiscal estimates make the bill's cost prohibitive.
"This bill is not ready for prime time, unfortunately," Vos said. "But I am more than happy to look at this issue. I think everyone in our country agrees we have far too much debt."
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.
The proposal would require that student loan borrowers be given detailed information before entering loan agreements, offer counseling to students and parents on college costs and require the state to collect and publish information about private lenders. It would also require information about the state's student loan debt to be tracked and provided to lawmakers.
Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, said if he were a Democrat, he would be "fearful" of engaging in a floor debate on college affordability. He noted that Democrats voted against two consecutive state budgets that contained a tuition freeze for the University of Wisconsin System.
Several other Republicans took issue with specific provisions within the bill, but some denounced it on principle.
Rep. Tom Larson, R-Colfax, described his experience working two jobs to pull himself out of debt.
"Nobody really wants to get out there and put their nose to the grindstone and do something for themselves," Larson said. ""There’s just too darn many of them that expect a free ride at the expense of all the rest of us."
Rep. Scott Allen, R-Waukesha, said government shouldn't come to the rescue. Allen said student loan debt isn't a government problem, it's a consumer problem.
Allen said society has an "insatiable appetite for higher education," adding that society has convinced children it's appropriate to spend thousands of dollars on education when their jobs will only help them pack back a fraction of the debt.
"We need to do a better job of educating people about what higher education is about," Allen said. "This is just another government bailout."
Mason said he was encouraged by some of the technical questions he was asked about the bill, and said he welcomes the discussion. He said those discussions could be had in an Assembly committee hearing.
Mason also said the tuition freeze was a good thing, but said it will only maintain the status quo of student loan debt.
"Simply freezing tuition only perpetuates the problem as it currently exists, and it does nothing, absolutely nothing, for the people who have already graduated and hold that debt for decades," Mason said. "And we need to do something substantial to address it today."