LEWISTON – A college education comes with the prospect of a good job and a brighter future. For many students, it also comes with thousands of dollars of debt.

A student-led organization launched a campaign Tuesday that will attempt to bend the state’s tax code into helping Mainers afford higher education.

Called Opportunity Maine, the campaign is pushing a ballot initiative that would create a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for student loan payments.

“This is an initiative that’s going to make it easier for all people in Maine to pursue higher education and continue their education,” said Andrew Bossie, the president of Opportunity Maine and the student body president at the University of Southern Maine.

Lisa Bazinet of Auburn is a nontraditional student who graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree and $25,000 of debt.

“Four years ago, I found myself single with two small children and decided I needed to enter the work force again,” Bazinet said. “My biggest fear was financial. How was I going to be able to put myself through school.”

Bazinet, who spoke at L-A College on Tuesday, said she took every student loan she could and struggled through. “Now I have this debt.”

“When my children are old enough to go to college, how am I going to pay for that?”

According to the legislation submitted to the secretary of state by Opportunity Maine, the program would be available to any Maine resident who earns an associate or bachelor’s degree in the state and then continues to live, work and pay taxes here after graduation. The tax credit would also be available to employers who agree to repay an employees’ student loans.

“A number of issues play into this idea,” said Rob Brown, Opportunity Maine’s campaign director. “We have a low rate of people going to college and of those who do, about half leave the state after they graduate.”

“We’re focusing on the need to alleviate student debt, which has a huge impact on the choices people make, like whether to stay in Maine after they graduate,” Brown said.

The group estimates that the tax credits would cost about $3.4 million its first year, Bossie said.

The program is not retroactive and would only apply to students in school at the time the initiative becomes law.

Over 10 years, the cost projection is about $53 million. But, Brown said, that is more than offset by increased revenue that the program should bring into the state.

Citing figures that a person with a college degree can expect to earn at least 15 percent more than a person with only a high school diploma, Brown said the tax credits will produce a positive economic impact for the state of about $82 million by its 10th year, for a net gain of about $30 million for the state.

“We see this, first and foremost, as economic development through education,” Brown said.

The tax credit would have a yearly cap, which would be based on the price of tuition at the University of Maine and any mandatory fees for people seeking a bachelor’s degree and on tuition and fees at the state’s community college system for an associate’s degree.

For this year, the credit would be capped at about $2,100, Bossie said.

That amount would not be refundable if it exceeds a person’s state tax burden, but any unused credit could be rolled over into the next tax year, Brown said.

“Maine currently lags 30 percent behind the New England average in an education work force. We are 30 percent behind the New England average for income,” Bossie said. “Education and income are linked.”

Opportunity Maine organized as a political action committee in April. Since then, it has filed two financial disclosure reports with the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices. So far, Opportunity Maine has reported $29,685 in in-kind contributions, primarily from two people. The group reports that Clifford Ginn and Justin Alfond, both of Portland, have each contributed $14,812.50 to the group to pay for polling and political research.

The language of the legislation has been approved by the secretary of state, said Doug Dunbar, a spokesman for the office. A final question will be provided by the secretary of state by Sept. 19.

Opportunity Maine is looking for 1,200 volunteers to collect 50,519 signatures necessary to get the question on the ballot. To appear in November 2007, the signatures must be received by the secretary of state by Jan. 25.

“There’s a lot of energy around this year’s campaign and the debate going on about education and the economy,” Brown said. Opportunity Maine hopes to capitalize on that by collecting most of the required signatures on Election Day.

“It gives us an opportunity to put another idea out there on the table that we think is quite bold and innovative,” Brown said. “We’d be the first state in the nation to do this.”

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