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Walker pledges to cut UW tuition

Gov. Scott Walker, without offering details, Tuesday pledged his budget will cut tuition for all Wisconsin undergraduates in the UW System.

He also used his State of the State address to propose investing $35.5 million in expanding broadband access, repeated his pledge to invest more in K-12 education in the upcoming budget and singled out workforce development as his top priority in 2017.

Walker and GOP lawmakers have frozen tuition at the UW System for Wisconsin undergrads over the past four years, and the governor had expressed an interest in extending that at least one more year in the 2017-19 budget. But in Tuesday's speech, Walker went one step further in pledging to reduce tuition for Wisconsin undergrads.

In the speech, Walker touted the four-year freeze, which he said had saved a typical student $6,300 compared to the trend in tuition hikes before it was implemented. He also again rebuffed calls to create a government entity to allow people with student loan debt to refinance, instead pointing to his administration's work with Wisconsin financial institutions to offer refinancing rates that he said are as good or better than many offered by government-supported programs in other states.

"We are making college more affordable, and at the same time, the University of Wisconsin is thriving," Walker said to a joint session of the Legislature, according to prepared remarks. He cited U.S. News and World Report's latest rankings for the best public colleges in the country.

Guv spokesman Tom Evenson said the system would receive new state money to pay for the cut, but full details would be in the guv’s budget.

Top UW officials reacted cautiously to Walker's call. System President Ray Cross applauded the guv’s work to keep college affordable.

“We look forward to working with the governor and the Legislature in the months ahead to focus on those priorities, while continuing to advance the world-renowned excellence of the UW System," Cross said.

UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank, meanwhile, said she shares Walker’s goal of making the school affordable and accessible.

“It is our hope that the governor and legislature will not only fully fund the proposed tuition reduction but also provide additional investment in the UW System in line with the modest request made by the Board of Regents, which is critical if we are to continue providing an outstanding educational experience to our students,” Blank said.

The regents have requested an additional $42.5 million in state aid for the 2017-19 budget, along with about $78 million to boost pay for UW System employees.

Joint Finance Co-chair Alberta Darling said those requests from UW will depend on “how much revenue we’re going to be getting.”

The River Hills Republican also said she hasn't seen details on the tuition cut proposal, though she said Walker's office told her he's "planning on backfilling" the decreased tuition revenues for UW with GPR dollars.

Therefore, she said, the plan wouldn't amount to a cut of the UW System.

"The Legislature will be debating capping and cutting, but I think when they are told that the governor’s budget will backfill the cuts in the tuition with GPR and the university system is not going to be cut, I think more people will be looking at it a little more favorably," she said.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said he will “definitely take a look” at Walker’s plan while noting UW’s tuition rates are among the lowest in the Big Ten.

“My focus is on making sure that we have access so that students get to graduate in four years and that we have a reasonable price for tuition,” Vos said. “So I’m open-minded, but I have yet to be persuaded that that is a priority for the Legislature.”

He also called the UW System seeking $42.5 million more a “relatively small request,” adding he’d “love to fund” it if the money is tied to performance measures. But like all other budget areas, he said, lawmakers will “have to wait and see” how much money the state has available.

Meanwhile, Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca was skeptical of Walker’s call.

“The problem has been that he’s never funded the freeze, so I can’t imagine that he’d fund a decreased tuition,” the Kenosha Dem said.

But Barca added that if the guv is willing to fund it, it’s something Dems would be “very open to.”

The guv called first lady Tonette Walker to the Assembly dais to detail Fostering Futures, an effort to train county workers and state staff to use what she called "trauma-informed care."

To illustrate the effort, Tonette Walker said when a child meeting with a welfare worker was belligerent, the question used to be, "What's wrong with that child?" The approach she's advocating turns that to, "What happened to that young person?"

She said there will still be consequences for behavior, but instead of labeling kids a "good" or "bad," the approach provides tools to create better outcomes.

"Sadly, too many children, and adults, too, struggle because they experienced some form of trauma or early adversity," Tonette Walker said. "Maybe it was drug abuse in the home. Maybe they saw domestic violence. Or maybe they were a victim of child abuse. Trauma-informed care offers strategies for understanding what is at the root of their struggle and can help identify more effective solutions."

Walker also urged lawmakers to quickly approve his call to provide $35.5 million to improve broadband access, saying it would help upgrade technology and train teachers from small and rural school districts. The money would push the state's investment in that effort to $52 million.

Walker used the annual speech to tout a drop in Wisconsin’s unemployment rate and an increase in the number of people employed as he declared state residents are better off now than they were six years ago when he first took office.

Walker noted the unemployment rate is 4.1 percent, the lowest in more than 15 years, and the state's labor participation rate is one of the highest in the country.

He also touted a $4.7 billion reduction in taxes since he took office, citing an August 2015 memo from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau detailing changes in state tax laws since 2011. That total includes property tax changes such as the administration pumping more state aid into technical colleges to drive down their reliance on property taxes and increases in public school aids that had a similar effect.

Walker said the typical family has seen an income tax reduction of $1,159.

“Are the people of Wisconsin -- you, me, us -- better off than we were six years ago? The answer is a resounding yes,” Walker said.

Walker also touted providing parents choices for educating their children and efforts to grow the workforce, calling it a “moral imperative” that every child has access to a great education and an “economic imperative” to grow the state’s workforce.

“We went from a focus on ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’ to talking about ‘workforce, workforce, workforce,’” Walker said. “This is my top priority for 2017 -- and beyond.”

The guv also pledged his budget, due to be released next month, will include a “significant increase” in funding and help for rural schools dealing with transportation costs, broadband access and declining enrollment.

Walker again drew a line in the sand on raising revenues for the transportation fund. He touted $18 billion he said has been invested in transportation over the past six years, saying that’s about $2 billion more than his predecessor spent during the previous six years. Walker touted his plan to focus on local transportation aids in his upcoming budget proposal, along with investing in maintenance and safety.

Walker said that -- and more -- can be done without an increase in the gas tax or vehicle registration fee, reminding lawmakers of his vow on taxes: “I will keep my word.” Walker has said repeatedly he will veto any increases in the gas tax or registration fee without an offsetting tax reduction elsewhere.

“We were not sent here by the people of Wisconsin to raise taxes,” Walker said.

Vos, who’s been battling with Walker on the issue in recent weeks, said he wants to find a “long-term solution, not a two-year plan.” Vos said not raising taxes or fees is the “preferred option for all of us,” but that he wants to “keep all options on the table.”

“I also think it’s not responsible for us to take part of the equation off the table until we see the breadth of the problem,” Vos said.

Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, meanwhile, decried the “decrepit infrastructure in this state with crumbling roads and bridges” and blasted Republicans for being unable to find a “long-term fix.”

She also said Republicans need to “take off the blinders” and realize the middle class is struggling.

“If you talk to the majority of Wisconsinites in this state they feel like it’s an economy that’s not working for them,” Shilling said.

See Walker's prepared remarks.

Watch the livecast.

See more quotes from legislative leaders

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