Julie Bero

Friday, June 29, 2007

Gov. John Baldacci of Maine (D) will sign into law the Act to Allow a Tax Credit for College Loan Repayments on July 1. The law is commonly referred to as Opportunity Maine, which is also the name of the group that pushed the proposal. It provides a tax credit to reimburse educational loan payments for any Maine resident who earns an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in Maine and who lives, works, and pays taxes in Maine after earning that degree. Qualifying graduates will be reimbursed for up to $2,100 per year through tax credits.

The first law of its kind, Opportunity Maine is a “cutting edge, comprehensive program,” in the words of Tony Giampetruzzi, communications director of Opportunity Maine. In a state where brain drain is a major concern, the legislation is especially welcome. According to a report done by the School of Economics of the University of Maine, the state lags behind the New England average of earned bachelor’s degrees by 23 percent and the majority of students who attain a higher degree leave the state upon graduation.

The Opportunity Maine organization was created in reaction to campaigning against a referendum that would legalize discrimination based on sexuality. Andrew Bossie, former student body president of the University of Southern Maine was active in that campaign. He and his friends, who sacrificed their time and GPAs to defeat the bill, wished they could have spent that time building rather than merely maintaining basic rights in their state.

As students, the first idea that came to them had its basis in personal experience. It was not uncommon to find a seat empty that had once been occupied by an eager student because they simply could not afford to continue, according to Bossie.

“Some of us were working two or three jobs on top of our full-time class schedules just to make ends meet,” he told Campus Progress. Although standing outside during a Maine winter to collect signatures was demanding work, Bossie believes that it was worth the effort and encourages other young people to take action. “If there is something that you want to change, find those that also want to create change and just do it. Sure, it won’t be easy, but no serious change is.”

When word got out about Bossie’s idea, a coalition of some of the strongest progressive groups in Maine quickly formed to champion the law. The campaign received strategic guidance from The League of Young Voters, an organization that encourages young people to create positive change in their communities by becoming politically active. “Our whole generation is realizing we’re getting screwed,” said Billy Wimsatt, Executive Director of the organization. “We’re getting left with the bill, the debt, and the melting ice caps. And we’re not taking it. We’re seizing the moment and saying: ‘Hey, this is our future! We’re in the driver’s seat!'” The movement is already picking up steam: the university system of West Virginia has already contacted Opportunity Maine for guidance on how to create a similar law.

Many involved with the campaign hope that the law will become popular at a national level. Student debt has become a problem for the majority of students as many colleges increase tuition faster than the inflation rate every year. The campaign noted that perhaps representatives do not understand the high price of tuition because it has increased so dramatically over the past 20 years. “The federal government, and generations who went to school before ours, need to realize that gone are the halcyon days when a summer job and part-time work could pay for a year at school,” said Brian Hiatt, The Portland League’s communication director.

The campaign was entirely dependent on its volunteers, who collected more than 73,000 signatures. There was an especially pointed campaign on election day, during which the majority of signatures were collected. Many of the volunteers spoke of their excitement about Opportunity Maine and said that they felt they had really made difference in their state. One gatherer of signatures, 2007 Colby College graduate Jack Drury, said of the experience: “As a member of a progressive youth-led campaign, it was refreshing to see such overwhelming support from the community at large. The progressive movement is gasping for effective ways to improve the world, and Opportunity Maine is that breath of fresh air.”

The bill was passed unanimously by the Maine House and with an overwhelming majority by the Senate, signifying that this law is important not only to young people, but to voters of all ages. At the bill’s hearing, State Rep. Walter Wheeler compared Opportunity Maine to the chances awarded to him by the G.I. Bill. “It made my career, my family, and my future possible,” said the Navy veteran, as quoted in The Portland Press Herald. “Now it’s a new generation’s turn.”

Julie Bero is an American studies major at Colby College. She collected signatures for Opportunity Maine. She is a native of Brooklyn, NY.