Republicans trying to stop Biden’s loan relief push state forgiveness programs

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has blasted President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan as “very unfair.” Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds has decried the policy as “unconscionable,” “wrong” and “out of touch.” “Un-American” and “socialism” are the words Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders has used.

Yet, all three Republican governors offer at least one state program for student loan forgiveness or repayment.

They’re far from the only ones. 

NBC News reviewed student loan forgiveness policies in states in which a Republican governor has called for an end to Biden’s plan or a Republican attorney general has sued to stop it.

The examination found that the vast majority of those states actually offer their own taxpayer-funded student loan forgiveness programs. Nearly as many have seen Republican-sponsored bills in the current legislative sessions to expand those programs or create new ones.

Last year, Republican governors in 22 states signed on to a letter demanding Biden immediately “withdraw” his student debt forgiveness plan. Weeks later, a group of six Republican-led states sued the Biden administration in federal court, seeking to block implementation of the plan — one of two suits heard by the Supreme Court, whose decisions in the next two months will determine the future of the program.

But 20 of the 23 states that signed the letter and/or sued have at least one — and in most cases, several — state programs that offer student loan forgiveness or repayment.

And in 17 of the 23, there is at least one GOP-sponsored bill in the current legislative session that proposes expanding an existing or creating a new program to offer student loan forgiveness or repayment.

Advocates for student loan forgiveness say that the position held by officials in these Republican states amounts to hypocrisy. They point to the fact that many Republican leaders seek to criticize Biden but not their own states or legislatures for carrying out plans with similar ends.

“The first thing that jumps out at me is the hypocrisy,” said Natalia Abrams, president of the Student Debt Crisis Center, a nonpartisan nonprofit group that advocates for the total cancellation of all federal student loan debt.

Republican officials in states with existing loan forgiveness programs and proposals to expand them, however, say there’s a difference between blanket loan forgiveness and efforts by their own states seeking to shore up various shortages in certain professions by offering financial incentives. They also claim that their state programs are constitutional, while Biden’s is not. His program, they say, amounts to overreach by the federal government. 

But one of the most prominent Republican criticisms has been that loan forgiveness provides an “unfair” advantage to people who still held debt over others who had paid theirs off already or decided to forgo college altogether.

“College may not be the right decision for every American, but for the students who took out loans, it was their decision: able adults and willing borrowers who knowingly agreed to the terms of the loan and consented to taking on debt in exchange for taking classes,” the 22 Republican governors wrote in their joint letter. “A high-cost degree is not the key to unlocking the American Dream — hard work and personal responsibility is. For many borrowers, they worked hard, made sacrifices, and paid off their debt. For many others, they chose hard work and a paycheck rather than more school and a loan.” 

Advocates point out that the state programs offered in most of those governors’ states nonetheless provide the very kind of loan forgiveness they have disparaged.

“Republican politicians are speaking out of both sides of their mouths,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said in a statement to NBC News. “Their hypocrisy shows what hardworking Americans already know to be true: canceling student debt is urgently needed and widely popular.”

Biden’s program would cancel up to $10,000 in debt for borrowers earning less than $125,000 a year (or couples who file taxes jointly and earn less than $250,000 annually) — regardless of their profession or location. Pell Grant recipients, who are the majority of borrowers, would be eligible for an additional $10,000 in debt relief.

The existing state programs — as well as the proposed programs and expansions — all apply, or would apply, student debt forgiveness and repayment to people working in specific professions or areas.

For example, the five states that both sued the Biden administration and whose Republican governors demanded the president withdraw the program — Nebraska, Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa and South Carolina — currently have in place, altogether, at least 10 programs that are partly or completely funded by the state that offer student loan forgiveness or repayment for specific professions, including teachers, nurses and health care professionals in rural areas.

Republican legislators in those states have sponsored bills this year that include expanding those programs to mental health care professionals in Iowa and Nebraska, to public health professionals and veterinarians in Missouri, to more teachers and doctors in rural areas in Arkansas and to law enforcement officers in South Carolina.

Texas, whose governor and two GOP senators have all blasted Biden’s plan as “unfair,” currently offers at least nine targeted student loan forgiveness plans — to certain nurses, doctors, teachers, legal aid attorneys and employees of the state attorney general’s office — while another 11 bills have been offered by Republican state lawmakers in the current legislative session. Those proposals include expanding the existing student loan forgiveness policies to nurses and creating new programs to help forgive student loans for math and science teachers, attorneys in rural areas, mental health professionals and other workers.

Georgia — the home state of GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who blasted Biden’s plan as “unfair” despite having had millions in federal loans of her own forgiven — currently offers one student loan forgiveness plan, for doctors in rural areas, while Republican lawmakers in the Legislature have so far put forward at least five bills that would offer student loan forgiveness for “peace officers,” health care workers, nurses and staff of the state’s General Assembly.

Nevertheless, the GOP governors in both — Brian Kemp, of Georgia, Greg Abbott, of Texas — signed on to the letter demanding Biden withdraw his own student loan forgiveness plan.

NBC News reached out to all the Republican governors in the 22 states that signed on to that letter, as well as the six Republican attorneys general in the states that sued to block the plan.

Many defended their states’ programs by claiming there was a prominent difference, both in substance and legally, between the broader policy offered by Biden and the more targeted policies offered by their states — though none of the officials who responded addressed questions of why it was acceptable for states, but not the federal government, to forgive debt.

Several also reiterated one of the legal arguments used in the suit against Biden: that the White House’s plan is illegal and unconstitutional because it circumvents Congress, which they say has the sole power to create laws related to student loan forgiveness, and because it incorrectly relies on a decades-old law the Biden administration has maintained allows it to cancel loans to counter the economic effects of the Covid pandemic.

“A one-size fits all student debt relief program for Ivy League graduates that bypasses the legislative authority of Congress and is formed by executive fiat is in no way comparable to legislation designed to attract and grow a top-tier workforce that can fill the crucial public safety and healthcare related positions and is carefully considered by the State House and Senate,” Garrison Douglas, a spokesperson for Kemp, the Georgia governor, said in a statement.

“Unlike President Biden’s unconstitutional executive fiat, Florida’s Nursing Student Loan Forgiveness Program is authorized by Chapter 1009.66, Florida Statutes,” Jeremy Redfern, a spokesperson for DeSantis, said in a statement.

Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach said in a statement that there was no hypocrisy at play in his office’s decision to sue Biden despite the state having several student loan forgiveness plans on its books because, “One is unconstitutional and the other is not.”

“The executive branch of the federal government does not have the unilateral authority under the U.S. Constitution to forgive the loans and spend the money to pay the debt without an act of Congress,” he said.

Alexa Henning, a spokesperson for the Arkansas governor, said that the federal program and Arkansas’ student loan forgiveness programs were “not even remotely similar.”

“As the Governor said, what Joe Biden did is socialism and unconstitutional, he wants those who didn’t go to school or already paid their loans to retroactively pay off hundreds of billions of dollars of other people’s debts,” she said in a statement. 

NBC News also reached out to 20 of the dozens of Republican legislators who have offered bills in their current sessions to expand upon or create new state programs that offer student loan forgiveness. None agreed to be interviewed, though one aide did respond to questions.

Jason Moyer, chief of staff for Texas state Rep. Frederick Frazier, who sponsored a bill expanding a student loan forgiveness program for certain teachers, said that his boss’s proposal “doesn’t have any comparison to student debt forgiveness on the federal level.”

“It’s tuition reimbursement, but the federal program is so much broader,” he said.

That distinction, however, doesn’t ring true for student loan advocates.

“You know, it all depends on what they want to label overreach,” Abrams, of the Student Debt Crisis Center, said referring to Republicans. “And it seems to come down to who’s the messenger with that.”

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