AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage on Wednesday held a lunch meeting with more than 20 students from a Bowdoin College class on Maine politics and discussed, among other things, how to keep young people in the state.
According to data from the Maine State Planning Office, Maine’s share of 20- to 59-year-olds is projected to dwindle in the next 15 years, while its population of 60- to 79-year-olds skyrockets.
“When you live in a state where more people are dying than being born, that’s not sustainable, and it scares me,” LePage said in an interview at the Blaine House, flanked by students amid Christmas decorations in the mansion’s State Reception Room.
The summit at the gubernatorial mansion was a follow-up meeting to one held last month at Bowdoin, where the governor was invited to speak with professor Chris Potholm’s Maine politics class.
There, the governor spoke about his upbringing and why he ran for office, but students really lit up when he began to speak about the dearth of young people in Maine. LePage gave the students an assignment: “Come up with some ideas to attract and retain youth in Maine, and I’ll invite you to the Blaine House to talk about it.”
So students worked in groups and studied the issue, Potholm said.
Gregoire Faucher, 20, of Madawaska said he thought the state would do better by young people if it offered programs to help them with student debt. He also said he thought there should be better ways to communicate internship and training opportunities to students.
He said those efforts would help make Maine more attractive, compared to other states with more high-paying jobs.
“If I had a choice to stay in Maine or go to Massachusetts, I’d choose Maine every time,” he said. “But I can’t.”
Another student, Zachary Morrison, said he’d like to see more programs such as Maine Track, a partnership between Maine Medical Center and Tufts University that aims to provide affordable medical training to Maine students, who in turn work two years in medical facilities across the state. The goal is that graduates of the program will have built professional and personal ties in the state, and will build their careers there after receiving their doctorates.
LePage said he supported programs such as Maine Track because they keep young people connected with the state. There could be options to elaborate on the program in disciplines other than medicine, he said.
“If you’re going to work in Maine five years, we’ll write off X number of college credits,” he said. “So you can literally get the credits for free, but you’ve got to give back to the state. I really like that model.”
Another model, proposed elsewhere in the country, would have students attend college tuition-free, in exchange for agreeing to work locally for a set number of years, and pay a certain percentage of their income back to the school for an agreed length of time.
LePage said he liked the idea, called “Pay it forward, Pay it back,” on the surface, but was still wary to embrace it.
“I’m always skeptical of getting the work done first and paying later,” he said.
While lots of ideas were batted around, the meeting wasn’t all business. As the students left, they were handed packages of cookies by a volunteer from the Blaine House friends group, and joked and posed for chummy photos with the governor.
Potholm, the students’ professor, said the kids had been “charmed” by the governor.
“This meeting was a very nice touch,” he said. “They said after he visited the class that he was not at all what they expected him to be.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.