AUGUSTA (AP) – The Maine Legislature’s lone World War II veteran, Rep. Walter Wheeler, said Tuesday that when his generation returned home from the war, the G.I. Bill was in effect and ready to be used.

“We used it, I used it,” said Wheeler, who went to trade school. “It made my career, my family and my future possible,” said the Kittery Democrat, a Navy veteran. “Now it’s a new generation’s turn. Let’s keep our young people home.”

Soon after the 81-year-old lawmaker’s speech, the House voted 142-0 in support of a bill that would authorize tax credits to reimburse college loan payments for Maine students who earn degrees in accredited colleges in the state – provided they stay in Maine. The bill’s overwhelming House approval put it a step away from enactment by the Senate, which supported it in earlier votes.

Gov. John Baldacci supports the measure, spokesman David Farmer said.

At very least, voters will get a chance to decide the issue in November because it was proposed through a citizen initiative.

The bill’s supporters say average debt for students who have loans will be $10,813 for those who receive associates’ degrees this year and $21,625 for bachelor’s degree recipients.

Besides helping those students pay off their loans, it will help Maine employers attract and retain employees, said Rep. Herbert Adams, D-Portland, a leading supporter of the bill. It would also slow a “brain drain” of educated Mainers who leave the state, supporters say.

The bill authorizes tax credits to reimburse educational loan payments for any Maine resident who earns associate’s or bachelor’s degrees in Maine, and then lives, works and pays taxes in the state after earning that degree.

The credit could be claimed only while a recipient lives and works in Maine. Their employers could agree to make the loan payments and claim the credit.

Tax credits would have a maximum of $2,100 per year or $8,400 total for a graduate who spent all four years in a Maine college, said Adams.

Critical to the bill is its price tag, about $160,000 for the two-year budget period starting in July. That decision was pending in the Appropriations Committee on Tuesday.

Tuesday’s vote was unusual because legislatures typically reject citizen initiatives in order to send them directly to voters.

Adams said this would be only the sixth time since Maine’s citizen initiative process was adopted nearly a century ago that a Legislature enacted an initiative without sending it to referendum.

The last instance was in 2000, when lawmakers repealed a state sales tax on snack food. A decade ago, the Legislature enacted a law to protect traditional marriage.

AP-ES-06-19-07 1711EDT

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