Gov. Scott Walker on Wednesday touted his efforts to make college more affordable, at the same time panning a Democratic proposal with the same aim.
Walker, speaking at the Wisconsin Credit Unions Lobby Day in Madison, praised the state's credit unions and other financial institutions as a partner in efforts to help students and families deal with student loan debt.
The governor highlighted 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.
Walker said that change shows a contrast between his approach and the approach Democratic lawmakers have urged.
Democrats have for several years advocated the creation of a state student loan refinancing authority through a bill authored by Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, and Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine. 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.
Walker on Wednesday said the proposal would amount to creating "another government bureaucracy," and argued financial institutions like credit unions are better tasked with refinancing than a state authority would be.
"I think it makes a much more compelling case if our state’s financial institutions can be the ones people turn to as opposed to putting pressure on the state government to create something that really is not our business or our mission," Walker said.
The liberal group One Wisconsin Now, a driving force behind the effort to create a refinancing authority, has said the governor's solutions to student loan debt are either "incredibly naive or purposely disingenuous."
"The system isn’t treating borrowers fairly," said OWN executive director Scot Ross in a statement. "It needs to be reformed and we need our elected leaders to step up with real solutions."
Walker on Wednesday also touted his pledge to cut tuition for all in-state undergraduate students in the UW System. The cut, first announced in his State of the State address earlier this month, will be detailed in Walker's budget proposal due in February.
Lawmakers from both parties are waiting for more details before they stake a position on the proposal. In general, Republicans have expressed an openness countered by skepticism among Democrats.
Wisconsin in 2016 had the fifth-highest percentage in the nation of graduates with student debt, at 70 percent, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. The average debt for someone with a bachelor's degree was about $29,000.