Gov. Scott Walker called for a two-year extension of the University of Wisconsin System’s tuition freeze in response to a report released Friday that showed a projected budget surplus of more than $1 billion by the end of June.

Last year, the Legislature enacted a two-year tuition freeze after it was discovered the UW System had more than $600 million in reserves. It was the first freeze that had occurred in the system’s history.

Many legislators felt the UW System had intentionally hid the reserve money.

“There was an attempt to keep the Board of Regents in the dark about finances of the UW System,” Mike Mikalsen, spokesperson for Rep. Stephen Nass, R-Whitewater, said. “We know the UW System is financially viable and healthy so the students should reap the benefits of that by a two-year tuition freeze.”

Before last year’s freeze, tuition had risen 5.6 percent or more every year for 10 years, according to the UW System’s budget plan.

According to the UW System budget for 2013, the unrestricted program revenue was about $1.1 billion, with about 75 percent of those being committed funds and three percent without a particular purpose. The other 22 percent is held for a particular purpose, but the planned expenditure is not documented.

Following Walker’s call for another freeze Friday, UW System President Ray Cross reiterated the importance of keeping college costs down in a statement.

“Holding college costs down helps Wisconsin students and families,” Cross said. “We intend to thoughtfully and judiciously manage and explain our resources. We will continue to work with the governor and the Legislature to meet our shared goal of delivering value to the state of Wisconsin.”

According to The Institute for College Access and Success, the average student debt for a college graduate of Madison in 2012 was $24,700, with 49 percent of students graduating with some debt.

This has left some asking for more relief for those already deep in debt. An attempt was made in the Legislature last year to restructure student’s loans with the “Higher Ed, Lower Debt” bill before it was voted down.

The bill sought to give borrowers the ability to refinance their loans through the Wisconsin Student Loan Refinancing Authority.

“We see this as a missed opportunity, freezing tuition now does nothing to help students who have already paid or are currently paying off student loan debt,” Mike Browne, One Wisconsin Now deputy director, said. “There was legislation before the state that would have helped borrowers refinance their loans to take advantage of lower interest rates and Gov. Walker has refused to engage on that issue.”

As November’s gubernatorial elections approach, Democratic candidate for governor Mary Burke also announced her support for keeping tuition low, but called for a long-term approach.

“Burke’s proposals to make college more affordable will make education more accessible and provide certainty into the future — well beyond a two or four year freeze. Burke’s plan includes increasing the deductability of college tuition and fees and refinancing student loan repayments,” a statement released by Burke’s campaign said.
GOP legislative leaders announced their support for Walker’s proposal Friday, saying they would seek to pass it into law in the upcoming session, according to a statement released by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester.

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