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Reality Check: Feingold ad on 'Free Money' needs context

Reality Check: Feingold ad on 'Free Money' needs context

MADISON, Wis. - An ad in the race for U.S. Senate is targeting college students and their parents, saying Sen. Ron Johnson wants to eliminate federal student loans.

Russ Feingold tries to use his opponent's words against him, but voters should have a bit more context.

"Listen to Senator Johnson on student loans," the ad says, before playing a video clip.

"It's just kind of free money and young people don't understand finance," Johnson says in the ad.

News 3 finds this needs clarification.

The video you see in the ad was taken from a liberal group called American Bridge, which tracks Johnson. He was asked at a town hall about how he could cut the amount of student-loan debt or student time in college. Johnson told a story of a woman who testified at a hearing that she had $70,000 in student debt and he says he asked her this.

"Did anyone talk to you about paying that back? [And she said] never," Johnson said. "So it's just kind of free money. Young people don't necessarily understand finances and people say you got to have an education and I agree you need as much education as you can get, it's a good thing. No doubt about that. But it has to be offset against: can you afford it? Can you afford to pay it back?"

The ad, though, continues after that first clip.

"What Senator Johnson doesn't understand is more than 800,000 Wisconsinites have student loans," the ad says.

News 3 finds this is true -- 812,000 people in Wisconsin, not just current students, have student debt according to the U.S. Department of Education numbers from 2014.

"But he wants to eliminate federal student loans and keep interest rates high," the ad says.

News 3 finds this needs clarification. Feingold's campaign points to multiple statements, including an interview with The Daily Cardinal in 2012 where Johnson was asked if he supported extending a low interest rate on federal Stafford loans.

"No," Johnson responded. "Why are we encouraging our young people to get into debt? Why is the federal government making money off of student loans? Why is the federal government even involved in student-loan programs? I have multiple problems with that. For all you young people who agree with Ron Paul in terms of limited government -- federal government shouldn't even be involved in granting student loans."

The reporter then asked if the whole program should be abolished.

"What I would encourage is what I did in my life," Johnson said. "I worked full time going to college. I worked full time and I ended college with $7,000 in the bank instead of $50,000 in student loans."

Johnson voted against freezing interest rates on Stafford loans in 2012 and against a Democratic budget amendment in 2015 that would have allowed federal refinancing of student loans.

A campaign spokesman, though, said Tuesday that Johnson does support the federal loan program.

"Ron is working to make college affordable and accessible for everyone, which is why he supported the Perkins loan program and voted twice for legislation to stabilize and lower interest rates," the campaign said in a statement.

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