Gov. Paul LePage said Tuesday he couldn’t round up enough support this year from wary Republicans to push through a proposed $40 million bond question to help young workers pay off their student debts.
But, he told radio interviewers, he’s not giving up.
“I am going to take it out on the streets, and I’m going to campaign very hard for it,” the governor told Bangor-based WVOM. He said he hopes to win over critics by the next legislative session.
The bond proposed by Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, would give employees who commit to living in Maine for at least five years a boost in paying off their debts and also create a financial incentive for companies to assist them.
Democrats in the House and Senate rallied around the plan but only five Republicans joined them last month, so the bond measure fell far short of the required two-thirds majority needed to send the question to voters in November.
LePage and Libby hoped they might round up additional votes before Wednesday’s veto session at the State House.
But the governor said he couldn’t sway members of his own party.
“I can’t believe that they’re so narrow-minded,” LePage said.
The governor told radio host Matt “Matty B” Boutwell on Z105.5’s Breakfast Club that young people who took out big student loans to get an education would move to Maine “if they knew that high debt load was being taken care of.”
In an interview to be aired Wednesday, LePage told Boutwell the state needs to give people the ability to build their net worth instead of just attacking their accumulated debts.
“Let’s try to ease the pain” of young people with a lot of debt, LePage told WVOM.
Doing so, he said, would let them buy homes and cars — and, with luck, to stay in Maine and raise families.
The governor said the program would be “a long-term investment” in bolstering the state’s economy by lowering the median age of its workforce. He said it would likely take seven to 10 years to have a real impact, but he’s confident it would be “very, very helpful” over the long haul.
The problem, LePage said, is that Maine’s workforce is too old and growing older. Securing younger, educated workers would help reverse the trend, he said.
Companies “are struggling to get workers,” he said.
Maine’s median age — 44.6 years old — is nearly seven years older the national average. It’s 14 years older than the state with the youngest population, Utah.
The idea behind the bond proposal is that it would make Maine a more attractive destination for recent college graduates. The Finance Authority of Maine, which would oversee Libby’s proposed program, said Maine students wind up with $29,644 in debt, on average.
LePage said the state is “in really good shape” to help because it can borrow for bonds at rates as low as 1.5 percent annually, far lower than the rate most students have to pay on their debts.
He said students from Maine would be able to pay their student loans back without interest under the plan and those who move to Maine from other states would get low interest rates to replace the high ones they’re saddled with today.
In addition, LePage said, companies could be offered dollar-for-dollar tax breaks to pay off student loan debts of employees who are staying in Maine, helping businesses and workers simultaneously.
Libby said the student debt crisis is serious.
It needs, he said, bold action “because nibbling around the edges won’t help.”
LePage said that if Republicans won’t go along, they need to bring an alternative to the table.
“If you don’t like my plan, what is yours?” the governor asked.