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Jan 12, 1:07 AM EST

Walker's Wisconsin tuition idea shuffles political alliances


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AP Photo/Andy Manis

MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to cut tuition at the University of Wisconsin and use taxpayer funds to pay for it is shaking up normal political alliances with some Democrats expressing support while skeptical fellow Republicans worry it could put the state on a path toward socialist Bernie Sanders' free college tuition plan.

Republican governors across the nation have criticized universities over higher tuition and some, including Walker, have forced tuition freezes. But Walker appears to be the first Republican governor to promise taxpayer money to reduce the cost of university tuition.

The idea comes as Walker is considering running for a third term in 2018 after flaming out as a presidential candidate in 2015. He sprang the tuition cut idea, with no details on its size or structure, on the Republican-controlled Legislature during his State of the State address on Tuesday. Asked about the proposal on Wednesday, he said it would be "significant" and paid for from the state budget.

The idea threatened to deepen a rift between Walker and some Wisconsin Republicans, who had already broken with him over the lack of money to pay for road construction and repair and are wary of diverting tax revenues to lower tuition.

The Wisconsin chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group funded by the Koch brothers that's been an enthusiastic Walker benefactor, said it hadn't taken a position on the idea.

But Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, who has frequently clashed with Walker, offered rare positive words.

"Certainly we support a freeze, we support even cutting tuition, but you have to fund it," he said.

Some Walker critics were quick to label it politically-motivated. Scot Ross, head of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now, said the cut was all about giving Walker something to run on in 2018.

"Walker is doing with the University of Wisconsin what he's always done with state government, which is spend recklessly and leave somebody else to pick up the tab," Ross said.

Walker pitched the proposal even after he cut university funding in his last budget by $250 million. He'd previously championed a tuition freeze across the UW System that's now in its fourth year.

While college affordability is an issue that resonates with both parties, there aren't any other governors who have floated a similar idea, said Andy Carlson, principal policy analyst at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.

Policy makers in both parties have tried to come up with ways to tackle the nation's collective $1.3 trillion in student loan debt by offering debt forgiveness and other relief programs. The average college graduate in Wisconsin in 2015 had $29,460 in debt, according to the nonprofit advocacy group the Institute for College Access and Success. Seventy percent of graduates in the state had some level of debt.

The University of Wisconsin regents have passed a budget that continues the tuition freeze for a fifth year and then would allow it to increase no more than inflation. University officials were cautious in their initial comments about the idea, saying it's imperative that any cut be paid for with state aid.

"It's great if we can keep college costs down," said UW spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis on Wednesday.

A student leader praised the proposal. Carmen Gosey, head of the student government group on the flagship Madison campus, called it "a great step forward in better access and an affordable education." But she also warned that cutting tuition, without an increase in state support, does not necessarily translate into a more affordable education.

The Republican co-chairs of the Legislature's budget-writing committee didn't immediately get behind Walker's idea, saying they wanted to consider it in the mix of other priorities.

"We know it's very popular," said Republican Rep. John Nygren.

Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos was one of the least enthused about the tuition cutting plan.

Vos said he feared heading "down the Bernie Sanders route, which is really free college education, which is what would happen if we kept dropping tuition."

Sanders pushed for free tuition at all U.S. public colleges during his Democratic presidential campaign.

Just last week Sanders stood by Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo when he proposed making state universities tuition-free for residents earning $125,000 or less.

Wisconsin's nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimated a 1 percent decrease in undergraduate tuition for all in-state undergraduate students would reduce UW System revenues by between $7 million and $8 million a year.

Undergraduate resident tuition current ranges from a low of $6,298 at UW-Green Bay and UW-Platteville to $9,273 a year at UW-Madison.

A 1 percent cut would save students between $62 and $92 a year, depending on which campus they attend. A 5 percent cut would range between $314 and $463. A 10 percent cut would result in savings of between $629 and $927.

The University of Wisconsin System has about 180,000 students spread out over 26 campuses.

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Associated Press writers Todd Richmond and Cara Lombardo contributed to this report.

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