Aurora legislator, state Dems, focus on student loans, GOP looks at statewide testing

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AURORA | The state’s Democratic lawmakers are determined this year to pass legislation that helps students burdened by loans and college costs. But it remains unclear whether the measures will pass in a split Legislature with Republicans more focused on reforming standardized testing.

State Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, who sits on the state Senate Education Committee, is sponsoring Senate Bill 15-068, which would create a state tax deduction for student loan debt and also cap private loan interest rates so they can only be 2 percent above the rate charged by the federal government.

Currently there are no state tax deductions for student loans, and federal deductions are for interest only. The bill would also limit private student loan interest rates, which can run as high as 18 percent. In comparison, federal loans such as a Stafford loan have a fixed rate of 4.66 percent for undergraduates and 6.21 percent for graduate students.

Todd released a joint statement about the bill with co-sponsor state Sen. Matt Jones, D-Louisville, that said 70 percent of students who graduate from the state’s public universities leave with debt, that average being $26,000 for a bachelor’s degree.

In a Republican-controlled Senate, the bill is being heard by the Senate State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee, commonly referred to as a “kill committee” where bills are often rejected.

Todd, a former teacher, said whether or not the bill passes, it is part of a much-needed public discussion around why insurmountable debt is the only option for  most people who want a college degree.

“I always try to look on the bright side, and seize the opportunity,” she said. “This is a chance to educate a group of committee members who may not otherwise hear about it.”

Another higher education bill that has been proposed by state Democrats this session is Senate Bill 15-062, which has been assigned to the Senate Education Committee.

It aims to permanently cap the rate that state colleges can raise tuition to 6 percent a year. Last year, the Legislature passed a two-year, 6 percent tuition cap as part of a bill that also provided $60 million to the state’s public universities.

Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, who is sponsoring the bill, said that legislation helped the University of Colorado cap its tuition increase at 3.3 percent for 2015, the smallest in the last eight years.

“Just looking at the statistics this past year, we’ve seen some of the lowest tuition increases in a decade,” he said of universities across the state. “If we’re serious about making sure that college is affordable for everyone, especially folks in the middle class, we need to focus on keeping an increase to a minimum.”

A provision in the bill would allow the colleges to ask the Colorado Commission on Higher Education for permission to increase undergraduate resident tuition rates by more than 6 percent in a given year if state funding for higher education increases by less than the rate of inflation.

The certainty of that bill’s future is also unclear as Republicans on the Senate Education Committee hold a majority. Republican members say they need more information on the measure.

“I have read it, but I’ve not decided how I will vote. I need to hear the pros and cons as presented at the hearing,” said state Sen. Laura Woods, R-Arvada, a member of the committee.