MADISON – Rural Wisconsin businesses need more workers and paying off some of their college debt is a good way to attract them, State Rep. Ed Brooks, R-Reedsburg, told an assembly committee last week.
Out-of-state residents could have up to $25,000 of their student debt reimbursed if they move to a rural Wisconsin county and live there five years.
The tuition forgiveness idea has been employed to attract doctors to rural areas and teachers to Milwaukee County and could work to bring in skilled people to boost economic development in rural Wisconsin, Brooks said.
“The dairy industry, hospitals and other businesses need qualified people and have trouble getting them,” Brooks told the Assembly Committee on Rural Development and Mining.
Recent college or technical school graduates who have lived in large cities but may want to raise a family in one of 50 qualifying Wisconsin rural counties are the most likely prospects to relocate, said Brooks.
Student debt would be reimbursed over five years and after five years people are likely to have roots in a community, he said.
There has not been any fiscal analysis of Assembly Bill 730’s impact but Brooks projects it could cost the state about $50,000 annually based on reimbursement costs for the doctors and teachers programs.
“It won’t start a landslide…or solve all of the problems we have but perhaps it will be part of the solution,” he said.
Democrats on the committee said the bill was inequitable because it doesn’t offer anything to Wisconsin residents who have debt and would want to live in a rural area.
Others said some non-qualifying counties, like Marathon, have large empty rural areas which wouldn’t be benefited by the bill.
“Everything we do in this building creates winners and losers,” Brooks replied.
Still others said refinancing student debt at a lower interest rate would be a more comprehensive approach to bettering the state’s workforce, an approach Brooks doesn’t back.
The bill also was criticized for not requiring participants to have a degree just earned credits toward one.
Brooks responded that those employed in health and other businesses probably would be required to be certified regardless of their degree status.
Recruiting workers is how Monroe County’s Economic Development Coordinator
Steve Peterson views the bill.
“This program goes hand in hand with recruiting efforts for business that want to relocate or expand,” Peterson said. “This bill makes the state a true partner with local governments on recruiting.”
A quality workforce is a big issue to employers and Peterson welcomes any additional tools he can show companies that Wisconsin has well-trained and motivated employees.
Qualifying area counties under AB730 include: Juneau, Sauk, Monroe, Richland, and Vernon.
Brooks said he was pleased with the bill’s reception in the committee. He was open to adding a “sunset clause” which would allow the program halted and evaluated for effectiveness.
The committee did not vote on the bill but could act on it when it meets next on Jan. 18.