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Clinton aims to cut student debt to help families (copy)

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks during a campaign stop at River Valley Community College Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2015, in Claremont, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

The Associated Press

While incoming college roommates are haggling over who will bring the microwave and who's responsible for the TV, Gov. Scott Walker and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are squabbling over solutions for college affordability. 

Clinton unveiled her "New College Compact" this week. The proposal is projected to cost $350 billion over the next decade, funded in part by cutting back on some itemized deductions for high-income taxpayers.

The Clinton plan seeks to motivate states to gradually increase funding for public college and provide $175 billion in grants to make it possible for students to afford tuition without taking out loans. The plan aims to increase the availability of low-interest grants and loans and ensure the federal government "will never again profit off student loans for college students."

After releasing the plan, Clinton immediately set her sights on Walker. 

"You take somebody like Gov. Walker of Wisconsin who seems to be delighted in slashing the investment in higher education in his state," Clinton said in New Hampshire on Tuesday. "Eliminating the opportunities for young people who are doctors or dentists to actually work in underserved areas in return for having their debts relieved; ending scholarships for poor kids; and most surprisingly to me, rejecting legislation that would have made it tax deductible for you, on your income tax, to deduct the amount of your loan payment."

Clinton was referring to the "Higher Ed, Lower Debt" plan introduced in 2013 by state Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, and Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine. The bill received a public hearing but languished in the Republican-dominated Legislature. Mason and Hansen introduced an updated version of the bill this spring.

The bill 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 a lower rate. Borrowers would also be able to deduct student loan payments from their income taxes.

During his 2014 re-election campaign, Walker said he would be willing to look at the refinancing proposal, but questioned whether it was "more than just politics."

"If it was a good idea, I’m sure (Democrats) would have passed it four years ago when they controlled the Assembly and the Senate and the governorship," he told reporters in September 2014. "They not only did not do it then, they presided over a state government that saw 5.5 percent average annual increases in tuition."

Rather than discussing student loan debt or financial aid directly, Walker has touted his tuition freeze for the University of Wisconsin System as a positive step in helping make college affordable.

"In order to make college, and the opportunities it provides, more affordable and more accessible for students and hardworking families across our state, Gov. Walker froze tuition for two years in the 2013-15 budget, the first two-year tuition freeze in UW System history," Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick in an email in June. "Gov. Walker’s 2015-17 budget continues the tuition freeze for an additional two years."

Patrick's statement was in response to an ad launched in June by three liberal groups including One Wisconsin Now, targeting Walker as "the worst governor in America" for tackling the country's student debt problem.

The governor has argued the tuition freeze, along with added flexibilities for UW System administrators, helps balance his proposed $300 million cut to the system. The Joint Finance Committee reduced the size of the cut by $50 million, and kept in place the tuition freeze.

Asked by the conservative site TownHall this week whether he thinks Clinton's proposal is "geared toward benefiting her liberal friends in academia," Walker said, "Absolutely."

"Hillary Clinton is offering the same bait and switch as President Obama, making promises to students while delivering higher tuition costs and tax increases," Walker said in a statement on Tuesday. "As governor, I froze college tuition at Wisconsin colleges four years in a row. Americans need a leader who delivers results not empty promises."

To further drive home the point, he tweeted at Clinton: ".@HillaryClinton I’ve frozen in-state tuition rates for four years, while you charged colleges $225K+ just to show up. -SW"

Walker also responded to a tweet from Clinton's account naming him specifically as someone "making it harder to afford college & pay off debt" with a graphic suggesting that Clinton's payment for one speech at a university could pay off the loans for seven average borrowers.

That tweet followed another graphics-heavy exchange between Clinton's account and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's account.

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.