August 24, 2019
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Does a tax credit make a difference for Maine, debt-laden college grads?

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

Nearly a decade ago, state lawmakers tried to entice new graduates of Maine colleges to stay and work in Maine by helping to reduce their student debt burden through the tax code. Today, nearly 4,000 graduates who live and work in Maine have signed up for the Opportunity Maine tax credit.

According to the Institute for College Access and Success, graduates from Maine universities on average shoulder about $30,000 in student debt, the seventh highest amount in the nation. The graduates who qualify for Opportunity Maine receive a tax credit to offset their monthly student loan payments. Employers who pay their employees’ student loan bills also are eligible.

A bachelor’s degree holder can claim up to $363 per month and up to $4,356 per year, while an associate’s degree holder can claim reimbursement for up to $66 per month and up to $792 per year, according to Maine Revenue Services.

While Opportunity Maine has grown in popularity and has expanded its reach, there’s no way to know whether it has achieved the goals its proponents had in mind. The state has done little to promote the program, and there has been no evaluation to date to judge its success in growing the ranks of young college graduates in the Maine workforce.

— Opportunity Maine has grown more popular over time. In the 2013 tax year, 1,908 Maine graduates received an average refund of $980 through the tax credit. This is an increase from the 1,627 graduates in 2012 who received $933 on average.

The Legislature in 2013 created an additional, refundable credit for Maine graduates who earned a science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) degree. Another 1,156 Maine graduates claimed this credit and received an average refund of $1,570.

Since Opportunity Maine launched, the number of graduates who claim the credit has grown at a decent clip, from only 11 graduates in the 2008 tax year to 3,064 in the 2013 tax year, counting STEM and non-STEM credits.

According to Maine Revenue Services, so far for the 2014 tax year 2,285 people have claimed the non-STEM credit and 1,673 have claimed the STEM credit — numbers that may increase as Maine Revenue Services is accepting extension returns until Oct. 15.

— As its popularity has grown, lawmakers have continued to expand its reach. When Opportunity Maine first became available Jan. 1, 2009, the only people eligible for it were Maine residents who attended a college or university in Maine.

“Originally, it was an incentive for students to finish their education and stay in Maine,” Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said. Alfond, as state director of the Maine chapter of the League of Young Voters, was one of the leading advocates for Opportunity Maine during the 2007 campaign for it.

But, he said, “we didn’t foresee the number of Mainers who leave the state for school” who couldn’t claim the credit. So in 2013 the Legislature extended eligibility to graduates who attended school out of state to entice them to come home.

Then, this past legislative session, lawmakers for the third time expanded Opportunity Maine. In the biennial budget, they made it so that, starting Jan. 1, 2016, any college graduate, even if they weren’t born in Maine nor attended a Maine school, could claim the credit to reduce their student debt burden, so long as they live and work in the state.

— It’s not clear whether Opportunity Maine is achieving its goals. As more people claim the education credit, Maine routinely is giving up millions of dollars in forgone revenue, yet there is no measure in place to determine what the state gets for its investment. Does the credit, for example, play a role in enticing young people to relocate to Maine? Or would they be working in Maine anyway and simply are claiming the credit?

In 2013, the state shelled out $3.6 million in education credits. Based on current projections, this will increase 55 percent to $5.6 million for the 2014 tax year.

Opportunity Maine supporters also have touted the tax credit as a recruiting tool for employers, noting the ability for employers to claim the credit. Christopher Hall, CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce and an early Opportunity Maine supporter, called the credit a “great way to recruit talent, especially with growing global competition for it.”

In fact, business leaders from Unum and L.L. Bean provided testimony in May in support of legislation to extend eligibility to out-of-state graduates because it would provide additional leverage to entice people to live and work in Maine.

Yet, Maine Revenue Services reports no businesses have claimed the credit, suggesting few if any employers are using this credit in their recruitment efforts.

It’s not only Opportunity Maine that the state hasn’t evaluated. Maine has done a poor job in general evaluating whether the wide range of tax credits and economic development incentives it offers have been worthwhile investments. Under newly passed legislation, the state Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability has been tasked with a comprehensive review of these credits and incentives. Opportunity Maine is slated to undergo evaluation in 2020 to determine whether it has had an impact on job growth and college affordability.

— Now, the state wants to get the word out so the program can be more effective. Even though the state has continued to expand the number of graduates eligible for Opportunity Maine, it has, until recently, done little to promote it, said Rob Brown, executive director of the nonprofit Opportunity Maine, which was formed in 2006 to advocate for college affordability.

“People will only take advantage of the credit if they know about it,” Brown said.

Meanwhile, six years in, Maine is nearly alone in offering a tax credit such as Opportunity Maine. The only other state is Rhode Island, which rolled out an education credit last month.

Brown noted other states took notice of Maine’s effort to retain college graduates and ease debt load.

In 2012, for example, when Connecticut was considering a tax credit to entice college graduates to stick around, it looked to Opportunity Maine as a potential model, though the state Legislature never enacted one.

Even though several states have proposed similar credits, they rarely make it out of committee, likely because the federal government already allows graduates to deduct up to $2,500 in interest paid on student loans, according to Dustin Weeden, policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In Maine, the Finance Authority of Maine last fall signed a $20,000 contract to market Opportunity Maine after lawmakers recognized few people were aware of the credit. Since then, a new website has been launched, along with social media campaigns, and informational brochures have been circulated around Maine schools, chambers of commerce, libraries and banks and credit unions.

While it’s too soon to measure the impact of the marketing campaign, Brown said, “it will make a big difference.”



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