AUGUSTA — Maine’s Republican governor used his weekly radio address to chide lawmakers for not following through on promises to attract young people to the state by addressing student debt.
The state is facing a growing need for skilled workers due its aging population and low unemployment.
Gov. Paul LePage also has noted Maine’s recent college graduates face among the nation’s highest average student debt, and a particularly high delinquency rate in the Northeast. Maine graduates face an average debt that ranks 14th highest in the nation: about $29,700, compared with $30,100 nationally, according to the Project on Student Debt by The Institute for College Access and Success.
“We cannot continue to kick this can down the road while our employers have vacant positions that young people could fill,” LePage said Wednesday during his weekly radio address.
LePage directed his ire at a 2016 state law that created – on paper – a program to offer zero-interest loans to selected science, computer science, technology, engineering and math students who plan to live in Maine and work in such fields. He said he worked with then-Democratic Sen. Justin Alfond on that law and an unsuccessful companion bill calling for a $10 million bond for the loan program, which has never received any funding.
LePage said “such typical, half-hearted measures” only give lawmakers talking points for their campaigns.
Republican Assistant Senate Leader Amy Volk is sponsoring LePage’s latest bill to allow voters to approve a bond to fund the loan program. A public hearing on the bill is set for Jan. 11.
Maine’s STEM loan program has never received any funding, whether from the state, federal government or private donations, said Bill Norbert, a spokesman for the Finance Authority of Maine.
The governor said he will submit legislation next year to provide businesses a tax credit for every student loan payment they make for employees who choose to stay in Maine. Lawmakers also are set to consider a legislator’s proposal for another multi-million dollar bond issue aimed at reducing student loan debt for individuals who agree to live and work in Maine.
“For our state to continue to grow, it must become easier for graduates to stay in Maine, and we must attract talented young people here,” LePage said.
The Maine Department of Labor has estimated that the number of STEM jobs will rise to nearly three times the rate for all occupations in the 10 year period from 2012 to 2022.
In this Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017, photo, Maine Gov. Paul LePage, left, talks with a customer at Simone’s Hot Dog Stand, while campaigning for a local candidate in Lewiston. (AP file photo)