AUGUSTA, Maine — After helping to block a student debt relief measure backed by Gov. Paul LePage, a top legislative Republican is pushing a scaled-back plan that could woo fellow Republicans but was criticized by a top Democrat as a “piecemeal” approach.
A 10-member panel of Maine legislative leaders will decide later this month whether to allow the Legislature to consider nearly 300 bills proposed for the 2018 session, including a $25 million bond issue being floated by House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport.
It’s less extensive than a plan backed by the Republican governor and Democrats that was blocked by legislative Republicans in July. That bill is sitting in a legislative committee, but Fredette’s proposal may win Republicans and provide a starting point for negotiations.
LePage broke with his party to support that $40 million college debt plan in a bid to lower Maine’s median age, the oldest in the nation. Students who graduated from eight Maine institutions in 2016 had the eighth-highest debt load in the U.S., according to the Institute for College Access and Success.
The plan backed by LePage would begin a program forgiving college debt for people who agree to live and work in Maine for five years after graduation and reimbursing employers who make payments for those employees. Fredette’s plan targets the same group of people, but it doesn’t include forgiveness.
It would allow graduates to consolidate loans through the Finance Authority of Maine at one low rate, but only up to certain amounts — $20,000 for an associate degree, $50,000 for a bachelor’s degree and $100,000 for a postgraduate degree.
It would also allow an employer to pay up to half of the costs for those graduates and let them make those payments as an expense for tax purposes instead of the dollar-for-dollar tax credit backed by LePage.
Fredette, who’s running to replace the term-limited governor in 2018, said he’s proposing this as a potential compromise to give graduates “skin in the game.” As a loan program and not a forgiveness program, it could also be self-sufficient.
“It intends to put some restraint on the potential costs of the program,” he said.
Spokespeople for LePage didn’t respond to a Tuesday request for comment. But the sponsor of the forgiveness bill, Assistant Senate Minority Leader Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, said on Tuesday that while he’d work with Fredette, the Republican’s proposal may not be aggressive enough.
“We can take piecemeal measures … and continue to lumber along in this demographic crisis,” he said, “or we can start thinking a little bit more outside the box in figuring out how we can aggressively attract people from outside the state’s borders and keep our graduates here.”
Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, the co-chairman of the Legislature’s Education Committee, was one of two Senate Republicans to back the earlier proposal, but he said he preferred Fredette’s approach because the fund would replenish itself.
“We just can’t afford forgiveness,” he said. “We don’t have deep enough pockets.”