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Student debt

On a party-line vote, Republicans on the Joint Committee on Finance voted against an amendment to the 2017 state budget offering a common-sense solution to help Wisconsin’s student loan borrowers. The measure, proposed by Democrats, would have created a state authority to help student loan borrowers to refinance at lower interest rates, just like you can with a mortgage.

Why would these Republicans oppose helping solve an economic crisis directly impacting nearly 1 million state residents?

It’s clear from the empty platitudes, misinformation and misdirection heard from the GOP as they engaged in the debate that when it comes to student loan debt, they just don’t get it.

Consider the statement of Rep. Dale Kooyenga, who represents many of the wealthy Milwaukee suburbs: “The statement that was just put out there that nobody can work their way through college anymore. … I mean that is just not true. … Students are out there working their way through college.”

It certainly is true that legions of college students do work summers, and also hold jobs during the school year to help pay for their education. But with average cost for a year of tuition, room, board and books running roughly $20,000 annually at University of Wisconsin schools, one cannot work a low-wage job for a summer and cover tuition and living expenses at a public, state university.

With a state minimum wage stagnant for nearly a decade and tuition hiked by double digits by Republicans in their first budget after taking complete control of state government, this is more of a fairy tale than ever.

The Republican co-chair of the Joint Committee on Finance, Rep. John Nygren, added: “This whole dynamic about the debt. Guess what? If you don’t borrow, you don’t have the debt."

On top of cutting public support for higher education and increasing tuition, Nygren and his cohort from 2011 to 2016 provided essentially no new resources for state financial aid programs for students. That meant the awards received by students failed to keep pace with rising costs and tens of thousands more students who were eligible for help received none.

State Rep. Mary Felzkowski lent a rhetorical hand by adding, “What we’re saying to kids today is, what is the return on investment of that education? … Am I going to spend $100,000 to start out at a position that’s paying $30,000 a year.”

Is she saying that students who need to take out loans to go to school should not be allowed to become teachers or social workers? Well, maybe. After all, it was Felzkowski who authored a budget provision, subsequently repealed by her embarrassed GOP colleagues, to eliminate the requirement that public school teachers in Wisconsin have college degrees.

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The nearly 1 million student loan borrowers and their families all across Wisconsin know there is a crisis. They worked hard to get their education and they took on the personal responsibility to pay for it. But they are stuck in a system that is not treating them fairly — for example, preventing them from lowering their monthly loan payments by refinancing at lower interest rates.

Whatever it is — partisan-driven obstruction, ideological intransigence or ignorance of the challenges facing recent generations of graduates — it’s no excuse for failing to act when presented with common-sense solutions to the economic crisis of student loan debt.

Scot Ross is executive director of One Wisconsin Now.

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