AUGUSTA, Maine — State budget-writers should not look to Maine’s public and private colleges and universities as they seek ways to fill a $100 million hole in the current budget, according to lawmakers seeking ways to make higher education more affordable.
Members of the Legislature’s Education Committee voted unanimously Monday to send a memo to the Appropriations Committee, which has proposed eliminating the sales tax exemption for private colleges and universities and cutting funding from casino revenues that fund scholarships at the state’s public schools.
All told, appropriators hope to eke out about $5.2 million in savings through the proposed measures, according to preliminary estimates from the nonpartisan Office of Fiscal and Program Review. The cuts are part of a slew of proposals aimed to fill the budget hole, which will be open for public hearings throughout this week.
The Education Committee voted to voice opposition to the plan in response to a panel of higher education experts, who said maintaining current appropriations was critical to the affordability of a college education in the state.
The group, composed of representatives from the state’s public university and community college systems, as well as the publicly funded Maine Maritime Academy and the Maine Independent Colleges Association, was asked to weigh in on proposals by Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, and Assistant Senate Minority Leader Roger Katz, R-Augusta.
Katz’s plan would require the University of Maine and Maine Community College systems to study the so-called “Pay it forward, pay it back” model of education that Oregon is piloting. Under that plan, college students pay zero tuition while they’re in school and, in exchange, agree to give a certain percent of their income back to the school for a fixed amount of time after they graduate.
Alfond’s is a concept bill aimed at affordability and degree completion. It’s based on nine initiatives, including adoption of the Oregon model and a list of other ideas such as tuition guarantees, state-backed loans and financial aid incentives requiring students to stay in Maine for a time after they graduate.
The Education Committee tabled both bills Monday, and opted instead to move forward with its own bill that would create a commission to study the Oregon model and create a plan to implement other proposals the colleges and universities say will improve student graduation rates.
Those include increased funding for Maine State Grant awards and work study, plus funding for other programs, such as those that help students navigate through their first year of college. Most college dropouts leave school in their sophomore year.
The committee will continue work on its college affordability and completion bill in subsequent meetings. The group meets next on March 10.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.