Arkansans applaud, blast debt forgiveness decision

Four Arkansas political figures are shown in these undated file photos. From left are Grant Tennille, chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas; Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin; and U.S. Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton, both R-Ark. (Left, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Rachel O'Neal; center left and center right, courtesy photos; right, AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
Four Arkansas political figures are shown in these undated file photos. From left are Grant Tennille, chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas; Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin; and U.S. Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton, both R-Ark. (Left, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Rachel O'Neal; center left and center right, courtesy photos; right, AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

The U.S. Supreme Court decision that the Biden administration could not go forward with a comprehensive student loan forgiveness plan, which would have wiped out more than $400 billion in student loan debt nationally, elicited strong reactions along political lines across Arkansas on Friday.

Republican leaders cheered Friday's 6-3 ruling, saying it reinforced their contention that President Joe Biden did not have the power to cancel student debt at the expense of taxpayers, while Democrats spoke bitterly about it.

"Hundreds of thousands of Arkansans are poorer this morning thanks to Republicans and those six Supreme Court justices, who might as well call themselves Republicans," said Grant Tennille, chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas.

Meanwhile, Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin said Friday that the president "can't act like a king," adding that it was an "important lesson to recall" as the Fourth of July holiday gets closer.

Arkansas was one of six states that sued the Biden administration over its loan forgiveness plan. The other states involved in the lawsuit were Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and South Carolina. They alleged, in part, that the plan would affect them economically by costing them tax revenue, according to the lawsuit.

"Today, the Supreme Court agreed with Arkansas and our coalition partners that President Biden can't unilaterally cancel student debt and stick taxpayers with the nearly half-a-trillion-dollar bill," Griffin said in a media statement. "Under our Constitution, Congress writes the laws, and it's up to Congress to decide how to address student debt. The Court's decision reaffirms that."

Biden and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona drafted a three-part plan last summer that aimed to eliminate up to $10,000 of student debt for borrowers earning up to $125,000 annually. For married couples, it was up to $250,000. Additionally, those who received Pell Grants -- financial assistance for low- and middle-income students -- would have been eligible for an additional $10,000 in loan forgiveness.

"President Biden believes that a post-high school education should be a ticket to a middle-class life, but for too many, the cost of borrowing for college is a lifelong burden that deprives them of that opportunity," the White House said in August 2022 after the plan was introduced.

The U.S. Department of Education announced in May that nearly 5,500 student loan borrowers in Arkansas were approved for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. That translated to a total loan forgiveness of more than $363 million statewide.

Biden has said from the outset that his administration has the power to forgive student loan debt under the Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students Act of 2003. The law allows the education secretary to waive or amend loan arrangements during a national emergency. Biden said the covid-19 pandemic qualified as a national emergency.

Supreme Court Justice John Roberts disagreed, as did Justices Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, Samuel Alito Jr. and Amy Coney Barrett, who made up the majority.

Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Kentanji Brown Jackson dissented.

Friday's ruling was applauded by several Republican lawmakers, including U.S. Sen. John Boozman, who earlier this year joined dozens of fellow Republican senators in filing a brief to the Supreme Court challenging Biden's plan.

"I'm pleased the Supreme Court overturned this attempt to bail out likely high-income earners at the expense of taxpayers who never went to college and those who fulfilled their obligation to pay off their debt," Boozman said. "This reckless plan wasn't authorized by Congress, but the solution to higher education affordability must include the legislative branch."

Arkansas' junior senator, Tom Cotton, who also signed his name to the brief, was more blunt with his reaction.

"Joe Biden's student loan transfer is a scheme that would require millions of Arkansans to pay off the loans of rich doctors and lawyers around the country," he said. "The Supreme Court was right to strike this scam down."

U.S. Rep. French Hill, a Republican congressman from Arkansas' 2nd District, also tweeted his support of the court's decision Friday.

"Today, [the Supreme Court] validated my strong belief that [President Biden] exceeded his executive authority in his unfair and ill-conceived plan to 'forgive' student loan debt," Hill wrote.

U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Arkansas, said the Supreme Court correctly ruled the program is unconstitutional and added that the White House needs to answer for any funds already issued concerning the program.

"This administration must be held accountable for their unconstitutional actions and should develop a plan to reimburse America," he wrote on Twitter. Westerman represents Arkansas' 4th Congressional District.

Randy Zook, president and chief executive officer of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, said the Supreme Court decision was fair and rational.

"The president does not have some unlimited authority to waive or forgo other people's financial obligations," Zook said. "What kind of message would it have sent to those students who have dutifully paid off their debts? There are lots of folks in that boat who were adamant in their opposition to what the president did."

State Sen. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, who is the state Senate's minority leader, said he was "disappointed, but not surprised" by the court's decision, but added that college affordability is an issue that requires a deep dive before it can be fixed.

The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville -- Leding's alma mater and what he called the "state's flagship university" -- currently costs four-year students a total of $113,000 to attend, he said.

"Our state's median income is about $44,000 or $45,000 per year ... so it's insane to think how much college costs compared to what middle-class Arkansans can afford," Leding said.

Tennille said the Biden administration has promised to pursue other options as a means to relieve millions of Americans of their mounting student loan debt.

"President Biden has talked about going another way to get at some of this and I certainly hope that he is correct," he said. "Hard-working Arkansans could use some relief because they're dealing with so much crippling debt."

Information for this article was contributed by Alex Thomas of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.