Wisconsin Democrats offer alternatives to Scott Walker's college affordability proposals

By Jessie Opoien, The Capital Times


While Republicans rally behind Gov. Scott Walker's college affordability package, Democrats continue to offer alternatives while so far refusing to support the GOP initiative. 
A proposal from Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, would increase the funding available for need-based grants awarded to University of Wisconsin System and technical college students.
Wisconsin Grants are provided by the state Higher Education Aids Board. Shankland's bill would increase HEAB's appropriation for technical college students by $27.8 million annually and $2.9 million annually for UW System students.
A bill in the governor's college affordability package seeks to address this funding for technical college students by allowing the Technical College System Board to solicit contributions for the grants from technical college district boards. TCSB could also transfer money from some of its other appropriations in order to fund the grants, under the bill introduced by Rep. Dave Heaton, R-Wausau, and Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls.
In 2014-15, nearly 37,000 students — the majority of whom attended technical college — qualified for those grants but were put on a waiting list to receive them. Funding for those grants has remained at the same level — save for a one-year increase for technical schools in 2013-14 — since 2010.
But any legislation with a cost attached faces an uphill battle in light of lower-than-expected budget projections released last week. Shankland said she hopes the latest revenue numbers will prompt Republican legislators to consider accepting federal Medicaid expansion.
"I think it's a great investment for our state, and it’s another way to tackle brain drain," Shankland said.
Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, made a similar argument when introducing a proposal with Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, to make college debt-free for Wisconsin residents. 
Their bill, called "The Wisconsin Promise," would cover tuition, fees, housing and textbooks for students who qualify for in-state tuition.
Students would be required to maintain a 3.0 GPA and to work in Wisconsin for three years after graduation. Sargent said Monday she and Larson would look into addressing students who choose to attend graduate school in another state.
Under the bill, the funds would be awarded as a grant. If a student broke his or her end of the agreement, the grant would be rolled over into a normal student loan.
Asked why Democrats are introducing new proposals rather than trying to work with Republicans on their bills, Sargent said the Republican bill authors are not interested in amending their legislation.
"It's a very limited program they’ve proposed," Sargent said. "This is something that's a promise to every child in the state of Wisconsin."
Sargent did not yet have a fiscal estimate for her bill, but it's unlikely it will gain traction in the Republican-led Legislature.