September 13, 2012

MAINE COMPASS: New law aimed at plugging 'brain drain' of college grads

Rep. Dennis Keschl

For decades, we've been hearing about Maine's so-called "brain drain" problem. Bright, promising young college graduates who have spent their entire lives in Maine have to move elsewhere because of dismal job prospects in their home state.

Year in and year out, lawmakers in Augusta gave lip service to the problem. The 125th Legislature did something about it.

This past session, the Legislature passed a bill that will give much-needed financial assistance to those who graduate from Maine's colleges with degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM subjects, in the form of a tax refund.

Students who graduate from a Maine community college or university with a degree in one of the STEM subjects will be eligible for a refundable tax credit of up to $40,000 if they stay in Maine to work.

Sponsored by Rep. Gary Knight, R-Livermore Falls, it's an extension of an existing program called Opportunity Maine, which provides a tax credit for all graduates of Maine colleges who are employed in the state.

The refundable credit enhances the benefit by allowing a graduate to receive a refund from the state if the credit claimed exceeds the amount owed in taxes. In both cases, an individual can claim the tax credit only with respect to loans that are part of a financial aid package.

Under the original bill that was proposed last session, all Maine graduates would have qualified for the refund, regardless of their field of study. While this was a worthy goal, we found that it wasn't financially realistic when the bill made it to the Appropriations table. I added an amendment that limits the refunds to those who have been awarded degrees in the STEM subjects.

The new law also expands the Opportunity Maine program to Maine residents serving in the military outside the state who otherwise meet all the requirements.

The passage of this legislation achieves three important goals.

* It provides strong incentive for those who are entering the work force with degrees in mathematics, science and engineering to stay here in Maine for an extended period of time, instead of seeking greener pastures in other states. This will make Maine more competitive when it comes to attracting companies that put a high premium on these job skills.

* It will attract Maine students to these very career fields that are so essential to growing Maine's economy.

* It eases the burden of what is often crippling student debt for recent graduates, many of whom have a difficult time making ends meet as they embark on their new careers.

Nationally, the average student debt load for a new graduate is about $22,000. Maine graduates have one of the highest student debt burdens of any state in the country at nearly $30,000 per graduate. The national student debt load for the entire country now tops $1 trillion.

Wick Johnson, president of Kennebec Technologies, a precision manufacturer in Augusta, says, "My most successful employees are the ones that didn't start out with huge debt."

Johnson is concerned about the student debt crisis on the national level. "Anything that reduces student debt is critically important," he said.

I am also proud of my fellow legislators on both sides of the aisle for their strong support of this legislation. It was symbolic of the bipartisanship that prevailed in the 125th Legislature under new leadership.

The tax refund program will not, on its own, solve Maine's brain drain problem, but like so much of what the 125th Legislature accomplished, it is a step in the right direction.

Rep. Dennis Keschl, R-Belgrade, serves on the Legislature's Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee. He is running for re-election for House District 83 against Democrat Pamela Boivin of Manchester.

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