AUGUSTA, Maine — Republican Rep. Ken Fredette and a bipartisan group of lawmakers unveiled a bill Wednesday that would allow members of the Maine National Guard to take college courses at no cost.

Fredette and other lawmakers who gathered at a media event to present the proposed legislation said that the project could be accomplished without additional funding for the state’s public higher education system, despite the system being in the midst of a downsizing initiative and facing a structural budget gap that could exceed $90 million over the next few years.

He said that the systems could absorb the additional students — estimated at between 50 and 200 per year — without incurring additional costs. He also suggested that this program could be a trade-off for an additional $20 million in funding earmarked for the University of Maine System in Gov. Paul LePage’s biennial budget proposal. LePage proposes flat funding for the community college system and a very small increase for Maine Maritime Academy.

“My position is from the taxpayer perspective,” said Fredette. “This isn’t costing anybody any real money.”

University of Maine System Chancellor James Page stopped short of supporting the bill in a written statement Wednesday afternoon. He said the UMaine System has already increased the number of degrees and certificates awarded to veterans by 102 percent in the past four years and has approximately 200 Maine National Guard members enrolled.

“We look forward to exploring with the Legislature all viable opportunities to reduce the costs of a degree for the men and women of the Maine National Guard,” said Page.

Fredette said his concept has the support of Gov. Paul LePage but acknowledged that Page was less supportive.

“This bill would help us build our workforce with high-character, hardworking individuals,” said Fredette, who is an officer and judge advocate general in the Maine Air National Guard. “Without education benefits like this, we’re losing some of our best and brightest young people and this is unacceptable.”

The bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Brad Farrin, R-Norridgewock, and Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston.

“This is a small price for us to pay to say thank you to these men and women who serve Maine and the nation,” said Farrin. “These soldiers and airmen will be a welcome addition to our college campuses and exactly the type of people we should be trying to keep right here in Maine once they have earned their degrees.”

Libby agreed.

“Helping student veterans get a college degree is just one small way to thank our veterans for their service to our country,” he said.

The bill will be formally presented to the Legislature in the coming weeks.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.