Progress Illinois: Progressives To Make Debt-Free College A Key 2016 Election Issue In Illinois, Other States

By: Ellyn Fortino

December 10th, 2015

Progressive lawmakers from 10 U.S. states, including Illinois, have rolled out a legislative campaign in support of debt-free college.

On a Monday conference call organized by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), 10 Democratic state legislators said they will introduce non-binding resolutions in their respective assemblies backing debt-free public higher education. The aim is to spark a larger conversation about debt-free college and make it a key 2016 election issue, according to the lawmakers.

Debt-free college resolutions will be introduced in the early primary states of New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina plus Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Missouri, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

"(Monday's) announcement is part of a larger progressive strategy for 2016, ensuring that the entire Democratic Party, from the top to the bottom of the ticket, is unified behind a big, bold economic populist agenda -- an agenda that motivates people to get to the polls, and it would be a game-changer in the lives of millions," said Kayla Wingbermuehle, PCCC's debt-free college campaign director.

Since all three 2016 Democratic presidential candidates support some type of debt-free college proposal, "the progressive strategy now is to go deep, unifying the Democratic Party around debt-free college and ensuring that there's an undeniable mandate in November of 2016," Wingbermuehle added.

Illinois State Rep. Will Guzzardi (D-Chicago) is looking to introduce a debt-free college resolution in the Illinois House in the coming weeks. 

"We're filing a resolution as a starting point to show the political power of this issue," said Guzzardi, one of at least three state legislators under the age of 30 involved with PCCC's debt-free college effort. 

"By advancing this debt-free college resolution," he added, "we Democrats will show the voters a clear contrast: that we're the party working to give all children a chance at a post-secondary education they can afford. It'll be a key issue in a tough election cycle."

Collectively, Americans are saddled with $1.3 trillion in student debt

"Student loan debt is preventing many families from having the ability to place a down payment on their first home," Iowa State Rep. Chris Hall (D-Sioux City) said on the call. "In effect, it's preventing them from access to the middle class."

Under a debt-free college system, students could graduate from public higher education institutions with zero debt. PCCC and Demos, a progressive public policy organization, have developed a national debt-free college blueprint with three key components: providing more federal aid to states, increasing college assistance for students and reducing higher education costs.

At the federal level, Democrat-backed resolutions in support of debt-free college are pending in the U.S. House and Senate. State lawmakers plan to model their resolutions after those federal measures.

"Part of getting this done long-term is showing the political power of this issue, and that's something that's gonna come into play very strongly here in Illinois, and I'm sure in many other states as well," Guzzardi said on the call.

He discussed the political climate in Illinois, where Democrats control the General Assembly and Republican Bruce Rauner occupies the governor's mansion.

"(Rauner) and his billionaire friends have created these Super PACs, and they're very invested in erasing the Democratic majority from the legislature in 2016. They're gonna spend millions and millions of dollars in legislative races," Guzzardi said. "And I think that this issue [of debt-free college] is gonna be a really critical focal point and a wedge that's gonna show voters whose side we're on." 

"When we show that the voters really care deeply about this [debt-free college] issue, that's gonna move legislators to want to get behind a bill to get it done," he added.