By SCOTT BAUER, Associated Press
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — New $5,000 merit-based scholarships for in-state students who attend University of Wisconsin System schools would be created under a Republican proposal funded by the sale of public lands unveiled Tuesday.
The bill aims to create the largest scholarship in Wisconsin history with $5 million available annually by the time it’s fully implemented in eight years. UW System President Ray Cross praised it as creative and brilliant, but the administrator of a state board that controls the land to be sold questioned whether the plan is constitutional.
Money to pay for the scholarships would come from the sale of about 70,000 acres land given to the state by the federal government at the time of statehood and managed by the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands. The forested land is mostly located in the northern Wisconsin counties of Oneida, Forest and Marinette.
Under the bill, the land would be sold to the state Department of Natural Resources under the stewardship program. The bill would require the DNR to purchase $10 million worth of the property for each of the next eight years, with interest from the sale then used to fund the scholarships.
Jim Dick, a spokesman for DNR, had no immediate comment on the proposal.
The board that controls the property has already sold 98 percent of similar land and uses interest from money made from previous land sales to make loans and grants to K-12 public schools, local governments and UW.
Jonathan Barry, the chief administrator of the board, said a similar proposal to force the board to sell land was introduced in 1995 but died amid concerns that it was unconstitutional. The board can’t be forced to sell land and has a responsibility to maximize the value of its assets, he said.
About half of the land targeted for sale is forested and the state nets about $300,000 a year in profits from the sale of timber, Barry said.
“The idea is not new but the way they have crafted it is creative and it bears a close look,” Barry said.
Cross said the proposal would turn “real estate capital into human capital the state badly needs.” He said other universities are luring away Wisconsin’s top high school students with attractive scholarship packages that this proposal would help to combat.
“It’s got the potential to being a turning point, a game changer for the state of Wisconsin to keep our brightest and best,” said Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, one of the co-sponsors of the measure.
The other co-sponsor is Rep. Tyler August, R-Lake Geneva.
Once fully implemented, bill backers project there would be enough money to offer about 1,000 scholarships every year. The only other state-funded merit-based scholarship provides $2,170 to the top graduate in each Wisconsin high school, the bill’s sponsors said.
The scholarships would be available only to Wisconsin residents who attend UW System schools. The UW Board of Regents would determine eligibility for the scholarships based on university admission test scores and high school GPA.
The proposal needs to pass the Senate and Assembly before Gov. Scott Walker can sign it into law. Walker’s spokesman Tom Evenson said the proposal appeared to be a great way to make college more affordable for students and working families.
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