Gov. Scott Walker's promise to cut tuition for University of Wisconsin students was met with uncertainty from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle following his State of the State address on Tuesday.
Walker pledged to go beyond his four-year tuition freeze and "cut — that's right, cut" tuition for all in-state undergraduate students in the UW System. His speech didn't offer any details on the size of the cut or how it would be funded.
Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said the cut "will be paid for," with details forthcoming in Walker's budget proposal, due next month.
"Governor Walker is committed to lowering the cost of college for students at our UW campuses. This isn't just talk," Evenson said.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said he is "open-minded" to the idea, but he is not yet convinced a tuition cut will be a priority for lawmakers as they consider the 2017-19 budget.
"My focus is on making sure we have access to make sure students get to graduate in four years and that we have a reasonable price for tuition," Vos told reporters after the speech.
Vos said he hopes the governor's budget will fully fund the UW System's request, which adds up to about $42.5 million. About half of that would fund a "Focus on the Educational Pipeline" initiative designed to help lead more students to pursue a college education. The initiative would offer more college credit options for high school students, expand access to academic, career and financial advising, make transferring credits easier, expand access to financial aid and help prepare students for the workforce.
"Of course I think there should be strings with that. I want to have better diversity of thought on campus so every perspective is represented when you go to take a class or listen to a lecture," Vos said.
"Probably back in the early heyday it wasn’t easy to find women to teach, but we made an effort and said it’s important to have diversity of gender, it’s important to have diversity of sexual orientation," Vos said. "All of those things I think add to a better education on a college campus, and having only half of the perspective on any topic, I think, really hurts the opportunity for students to get the best education."
The funding could also be tied to performance metrics including four-year graduation rates, Vos suggested.
Joint Finance Committee co-chairman Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said he supports those proposals in theory, but isn't sure how intellectual diversity would be defined or measured.
Nygren said Republicans are proud of the tuition freeze, but he was reluctant to signal support for Walker's proposed cut.
"It’s not that I’m against it, it’s just that as a budget chair I need to look at the budget in totality against other priorities such as K-12 funding, Medicaid, other big ticket items," Nygren said.
Democrats were skeptical of Walker's proposal, but expressed cautious optimism.
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said Democrats support tuition freezes and cuts as long as they are funded with state support.
"If he's willing to fund it, that's something we would be very open to," Barca said.
But Rep. Dianne Hesselbein, D-Middleton, said Walker's other college affordability measures fell flat and were short on specifics.
Walker, in his speech, touted an announcement made this fall that he said would give more student loan borrowers the opportunity to refinance their loans. UW Credit Union announced in September it would expand its membership eligibility to include any current or former college students who currently live in Wisconsin.
The credit union has offered refinancing and consolidation to its members for about three years, but previously, membership was available to past and current University of Wisconsin System students.
"Here's the good news: we found a better way to help people with high debt. Our administration has worked with Wisconsin’s very own financial institutions to promote refinancing options available to those with student loan debt," Walker said, contrasting the credit union option with a Democratic proposal to create a state student loan refinancing authority.
The liberal group One Wisconsin Now, a driving force behind the effort to create a refinancing authority, accused Walker of giving "recycled advice instead of solutions."
Hesselbein argued Walker's answer to student loan debt amounted to telling borrowers to "call a bank."
"I want to know how he's going to fund technical colleges and universities," Hesselbein said.
Those answers will likely come within the next few months.