April 08, 2020

Maine’s golden opportunity

I urge all Mainers to look for and sign the petitions to place the Opportunity Maine initiative on the ballot, and I thank the Bangor Daily News and columnist and political economist John Buell for their recent commentaries encouraging the same.

This initiative will make higher education more affordable for all Mainers, keep our degree earners in the state after they graduate and cultivate the skilled work force we need for strong economic growth.

At one time, a high school diploma and our Yankee work ethic was the ticket to a secure, middle-class life in Maine. This is no longer the case, however. In today’s economy, most people need a post-high school degree to ensure a life of economic opportunity and security.

For a number of reasons, Maine is falling behind the rest of New England in this respect. Good jobs in manufacturing and natural-resource based industries are steadily leaving Maine, leaving behind broad and deep pockets of unemployment and poverty. According to the new report “Charting Maine’s Future” by the Brookings Institution, Maine’s population growth in recent years has accelerated faster than any other state, but many young people, including roughly half of our recent college graduates, are leaving out of economic necessity. Maine has one of the highest high school graduation rates in the country, yet our workers are 30 percent less likely to have post-high school degrees than workers in New England as a whole, and our average income is 30 percent below the New England average.

A generation ago, student debt was minimal or nonexistent. Today, the average graduate in Maine is starting off, or starting again, with $25,000 in debt, a mortgage on their future that has perverse effects on life and career choices. Rising education costs have dramatically outpaced inflation and, with mounting student debt and continued cuts in federal support, have effectively become a regressive tax for many.

Lack of educational opportunity and the resulting drag on economic growth is throttling Maine’s economy and we are all paying the price. The best way to break this cycle is through education- a proven and effective driver of job, wage and economic growth.

This is why Opportunity Maine, a group of student and community leaders from around the state, has launched a campaign to expand educational opportunity and create higher paying jobs throughout Maine. We are recruiting volunteers to collect signatures this fall, particularly at the polls on Election Day, for a referendum next year.

Our plan will allow any Maine resident who earns an associate’s or bachelor’s degree here to claim an income tax credit to help pay down their student debt, so long as they continue to live and work in Maine after graduation. This tax credit would also be available to Maine businesses that make their employees’ educational loan payments, allowing a substantial benefit to current and future workers and providing a strong incentive for the development and attraction of new businesses.

Only graduates who live and work in Maine can claim this benefit. It will provide a boost to all those who want to further their education- from young people to laid-off workers seeking new training to adults pursuing higher-paying careers. This type of citizen-centered economic development will sustain our growing manufacturing and information design and service sectors, and provide further support for Maine’s burgeoning creative economy.

Businesspeople, economists and academics agree that the education level of a work force is one of the top considerations for businesses deciding where to locate. Bill Gates has said that if public officials want to bring the jobs of the 21st century to their state, the number one thing they need to do is invest in education. in an interview with The New York Times, Dr. John Fitzsimmons, president of the Maine Community College System, identified more than 4,200 good jobs recently that either went unfilled or were filled with

out-of-state recruits because Maine could not provide enough workers with the needed skills.

Education is one of the most equitable public investments we can make and it pays the most dividends, since the average bachelor’s degree holder in Maine earns nearly $15,000 more than those with only a high school diploma, and associate’s degree holders earn nearly $9,000 more. Because of this, even by conservative estimates, this initiative will create a net gain in tax revenues of roughly $30 million a year within a decade, because of increased incomes and positive economic ripple effects.

Many lawmakers and civic, education, business and labor leaders are enthusiastically supporting the Opportunity Maine Campaign. Perhaps more important is that we have energized young people in Maine to become engaged in the effort, belying their usual characterization as apathetic and disengaged. They have been moved to action because they understand the difficulty of the problem, despite the fact that this initiative will not benefit them directly, as it is not retroactive.

The Opportunity Maine Campaign will benefit all Maine families by raising wages and giving our children the choice to stay in their home state after they graduate. And all Maine taxpayers will benefit from improving the economy of the great state of Maine.

Opportunity Maine believes that opening the doors of educational and economic opportunity for Maine people is a process that needs to begin now. If you agree with us and can spend a few hours making this vision a reality, please contact us at www.opportunitymaine.org or 567-3074.

Rob Brown is the campaign director for Opportunity Maine. He lives

in Stockton Springs.

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