PRESQUE ISLE – A small but motivated group of college students Saturday launched plans for a statewide referendum aimed at reducing the number of educated young people leaving Maine.
Opportunity Maine, which seeks to collect 60,000 signatures for a referendum vote next year, is proposing that higher education students be given tax credits equal to their students loans if they agree to live and work in Maine after graduation.
Andrew Bossie, a University of Southern Maine student who hails from Caribou, is president of Opportunity Maine.
“We are not keeping our educated work force in Maine after graduation,” Bossie warned Saturday afternoon at the University of Maine at Presque Isle. More than a dozen student organizers, representing three campuses of higher education in Aroostook County, turned out at the gathering. “They leave here for better opportunities.
“This plan – tax credits for education loans – has never been tried before, and it could make it worthwhile for graduates to stay in Maine,” Bossie continued. “It would create a more vibrant economy, and improve opportunities in education and the economy in the state.”
Opportunity Maine, which was scheduled to meet in Portland on Sunday and at UMaine in Orono next Saturday, maintains the elimination or reduction of student debt would act as an incentive to keep educated young people from leaving Maine.
If the group gathers 60,000 signatures by Jan. 25, 2007, its concept would be presented to Maine voters on the ballot in November 2007. If enough signatures are collected by Sept. 25, 2007, the initiative would be put to voters in November 2008.
“We hope to get a lot of the needed signatures on Election Day,” Bossie said. “It is a good place to get signatures, and we know they are legitimate signatures since the people are there to vote already.”
Bossie and other young people at Saturday’s session expressed concern about the continuing exodus of college graduates from Maine. Giving college graduates incentives to stay, they assert, will help spark economic development and encourage more young Mainers to pursue higher education.
“It’s a way to stem outmigration,” Zack Smith, an UMPI student and candidate for the Maine House of Representatives, explained. “It’s getting more expensive and more difficult to get into higher education in Maine.”
Michelle Black, student senate president at Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle, believes such legislation would make it easier for students.
“Just imagine how awesome it would be,” she said. “People could better themselves by staying in Maine.”
Mike Eisensmith, director of development for the Northern Maine Development Commission, said his organization has been working on the problem of outmigration for years.
“It’s an economic development issue,” he told students. “It certainly would be a big incentive to do something with student loans.
“That is a tremendous weight on the shoulders of graduates,” Eisensmith noted. “It would be an incentive to stay here [in Maine].”
Joe McCarthy of UMPI said the measure would be “noncontroversial” and have no downside.
Charles R. Bernard Jr., another UMPI student who is also running for the Maine House of Representatives in the next election, said the measure “would strengthen the economy … increased the educated work force in Maine … and make education more affordable for all students.”