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Chris Rickert is the urban affairs reporter and SOS columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal.

With Wisconsin college students the third most likely in the nation to be weighed down by student loan debt, legislative Democrats have been pushing a proposal to let them refinance their loans with the state, while Republicans on Monday responded with a handful of more modest proposals.

It’s yet another incarnation of the usual ideological dispute: Democrats jump to a big-government solution; Republicans hesitate to propose smaller crutches, and only if their purpose is to help individuals help themselves.

The irony is that neither set of fixes would be as necessary if lawmakers could actually fund and manage public higher education like the key piece of state infrastructure it is.

The linchpin of Sen. Dave Hansen and Rep. Cory Mason’s “Higher Ed/Lower Debt” act would be the creation of a state agency called the Wisconsin Student Loan Refinancing Authority. It would use the state’s borrowing power to borrow money at lower interest rates than students can get and then use that money to pay off students’ federal and private loans. Students would then pay the state back, also at a lower interest rate.

It all sounds pretty good if you don’t have a problem with increasing the size of state government or handing off some private student lending to state government bureaucrats.

“Increasing the size of government” and “government bureaucrats” being trigger words for the average Republican, though, it’s not likely to get much traction in today’s Republican-controlled Legislature.

Instead, Republican Gov. Scott Walker and his allies seek to boost student internships; provide more information to students about college cost and financing, including a kind of “truth in lending”-type disclosure; increase aid for state technical college students; provide emergency grants to low-income students; and allow students to deduct more of their loan interest from their state income taxes.

The truth-in-lending proposal is the best of the bunch. It sounds like one of those scary, but necessary truth-in-lending statements home buyers get at closing, and would presumably give students a better idea of just how much that diploma will end up costing them — after interest.

Still, the Republican initiatives won’t take more than a small nibble out of all the debt Wisconsin students have racked up.

Making that debt possible have been increases in tuition at Wisconsin’s public colleges and universities that have often outstripped inflation and are in part driven by the Legislature’s decisions to skimp on state funding for higher ed.

State general purpose funding for the University of Wisconsin System, for example, rose at an annual rate of less than 2 percent from 2004-05 to 2013-14. State aid made up 13.6 percent of the Wisconsin Technical College System’s revenues in 2003-04 but 8.7 percent of it in 2012-13.

Finding the money and political will to adequately fund the state’s higher education is hard and not particularly flashy.

And new government programs give lawmakers something to brag about come election time — even when the programs are aimed at fixing a problem lawmakers helped create.

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Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com or on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ).

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