AUGUSTA — In a rare moment of agreement, Gov. Paul LePage and Democratic lawmakers are pushing for a student debt relief program aimed at convincing recent college graduates to settle in Maine.

The loan forgiveness program, which would need voters’ approval next year, would allow up to $25,000 in student debt relief for people who choose to live and work in Maine.

Lewiston Sen. Nate Libby, the Democrats’ assistant minority leader, said it would be “a first of its kind program in the nation” that would send a message to the rest of the country “that Maine’s the place to go.”

LePage said it would tell young professionals to “come to Maine, live and work, and we’ll help to pay off student debt.”

He told Portland radio station WGAN Thursday that he and Libby each worked on the measure as a way to address the problem of Maine’s aging population. The governor said jobs are going unfilled and the rising median age is a growing crisis for the state.

The student debt proposal is part of a $200 million bond package approved by the Appropriations Committee Wednesday. It includes $105 million for transportation projects, $55 million for biomedical research and development and $40 million for student debt relief.

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If the Legislature agrees, voters would get the final say next June, Libby said.

LePage said the hitch is that Republican lawmakers are skeptical about the debt relief proposal.

He said, though, that if the GOP doesn’t want it, its members need to come up with an alternative.

“If you don’t like my plan, come up with your own,” the governor told Republicans.

“We need bold action to solve this crisis, because nibbling around the edges won’t help,” Libby said.

Libby said the plan would offer Maine residents who are working and commit to stay in Maine for 5 years enough money to pay about 15 percent of their annual debt load, with a $25,000 maximum benefit. Both federal and private loans would be eligible, he said.

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Aaron Chadbourne, the senior policy adviser to LePage, said the proposal is designed “as a bold stroke to attract and retain skilled workforce in Maine by offering meaningful student debt relief.”

The Finance Authority of Maine, which would oversee the program, said Maine students have $29,644 in outstanding debt, on average.

William Norbert, FAME’s government affairs and communications manager, said student loan repayment programs “can be excellent tools for attracting and retaining talent in the state.”

Libby said student debt has become “a huge burden on an entire generation of working people who have gone to college” who find themselves “saddled with unprecedented amounts of debt.”

He said many are struggling to make payments of up to $800 a month, imposing enormous burdens on entire families.

Libby said he’s “a little surprised” to find LePage as an ally on the measure, but it’s an indication of how serious the problem is.

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Libby said more than 10 percent of borrowers in Maine are in default.

But even those who are making payments “are doing so at the expense of not fully participating in the economy or by not advancing to the next stages of their lives,” Libby said.

He said an entire generation “is delaying purchasing a home or a new car, getting married or having kids” because they owe so much.

“This delay hurts our state’s economy today and jeopardizes the ongoing growth and success of our state for the future,” Libby said.

This story will be updated.

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