GUEST COLUMN

Improving Opportunity Maine

Posted June 03, 2011, at 9:47 p.m.

As Republican state representatives, we co-chair legislative committees dealing with tax policy, education, energy and technology and economic development. We deal with a wide variety of issues, but we all believe our highest priority is to foster an economy that creates high-wage, high-skill jobs for Maine people.

We were all here four years ago when Republicans and Democrats in Maine’s Legislature passed a citizens initiative directly into law (only the sixth time this has ever happened) that was also about fostering high-wage, high-skill jobs. That initiative was called the Opportunity Maine Program and it was passed unanimously in the House of Representatives and by an overwhelming margin in the Senate.

The Opportunity Maine Program is the boldest college affordability program in the nation and has a simple but powerful message: If you put in the hard work of getting a college degree and commit to living and working in Maine, the program will wipe out most if not all of your student debt.

The program allows those who earn an associate or bachelor’s degree at a Maine school to be reimbursed for student loan payments through a state income tax credit for any years they live, work and pay taxes here after graduation. Alternatively, businesses that pay employees’ education loans as an employee benefit can claim the tax credit, providing a strong incentive for businesses to expand or locate here and support their employees in pursuing higher education. The credit is called the Educational Opportunity Tax Credit.

When we passed the program, none of us considered it to be “just another tax credit.” For the economic development potential to be realized, we knew it would need to be aggressively promoted by colleges and universities, guidance counselors, teachers, parents and employers. As elected officials, we have promoted it with constituents in town forums and campaigning door-to-door.

We are well aware that the program is a major public policy commitment, but we have the satisfaction of knowing that 100 percent of this investment in affordable higher education will directly benefit Maine’s economy by improving the education and skills of our work force, improving our business climate, creating more higher-income taxpayers, decreasing welfare costs associated with low-income, low-skill workers and helping more young people start their careers, businesses and families in Maine.

Our commitment to this program, and the commitment of our colleagues and our new governor, remains as strong today as it was when we created it.

For example, last year, numerous stakeholders worked with legislators to pass a law that streamlined, simplified and clarified several elements of the program, making it much easier for institutions to promote it and for students and parents to understand how to take advantage of it.

This year, we are eager to expand the program by making the tax credit refundable and allowing businesses to use it as a recruitment tool for new employees who earned their degree outside of Maine.

Current law requires Maine’s higher education institutions to report to the Department of Education and the legislature’s Education Committee how they are promoting the program, and we look forward to seeing what progress has been made.

Research shows that over the next decade in Maine, jobs requiring post-secondary education or training are projected to grow by 15,000, while jobs for high school graduates and dropouts combined will in­crease by only 2,200. And yet, Maine has the third-highest student debt load in the nation and the second highest as a percentage of income. This is a horribly mixed message to be sending.

To be blunt, we are failing the people of Maine if we do not help them prepare for the jobs and economy of the future.

As legislators and as parents, some of us with children in college in Maine right now, we can’t help but be aware of the threat posed by student debt. Like all families, our greatest hope is that our children are able to stay in Maine if they want to start their careers and families here. The Opportunity Maine Program is perhaps the greatest step the Maine legislature has ever taken to make that hope a reality.

This is why it is critical that all of us, especially our higher education institutions, aggressively and strategically promote the program, which will improve our college-going, retention and completion rates, incentivize more incumbent workers to go back to school and more young professionals to live and work in Maine and provide the work force our businesses need to grow.

Stacey Fitts of Pittsfield, David Richardson of Hermon, Gary Knight of Livermore Falls and Kerri Prescott of Topsham are Republican members of the Maine House of Representatives.

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