LePage unveils 3 bills to help ease student debt

Bonjour from Augusta, where that’s about as far as I’m going to go trying to dazzle you with my high school French (I can sing “Frere Jacques,” just for the record, but trust me you don’t want to hear that. It is NOT your soundtrack).

Today is Franco-American Day at the State House, which is one of the more fun days of the year in Augusta. There will celebrations of French and French-Canadian culture and history on multiple fronts, from resolutions and sentiments in the House and Senate to (I hope) Tourtiere Pie in the Cross Cafe. I heard yesterday that veteran Lewiston Rep. Peggy Rotundo was brushing up her French yesterday to take a turn at the House rostrum this morning. I don’t think she’ll be singing “Frere Jacques,” but I have not confirmed that.

Anyway, Gov. Paul LePage — who often speaks French — has followed through on his long-stated intention of easing debt for college students in Maine by submitting three new bills that appear in today’s Senate calendar. All three, notably, are sponsored by Democratic Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond of Portland, who has had a stormy relationship with the governor in the past but lately has been finding a modicum of common ground. Here are the bills:

  • LD 1655, An Act to Increase the Number of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Professionals in the State. This bill would create the Maine STEM Loan Program, administered by the Finance Authority of Maine. If students in those fields agree to live and work in Maine, their student loans would have no interest.
  • LD 1656, An Act to Authorize a General Fund Bond Issue to Fund Loan Repayment Programs for Graduates in the Fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. This bill would ask voters during a statewide referendum in November to borrow $10 million to fund the loan program described above, in LD 1655.
  • LD 1657, An Act to Simplify and Expand the Educational Opportunity Tax Credit. This bill would expand tax credits for students who studied outside of Maine’s public higher education system but returned to complete their degrees here. It also allows Maine residents employed at least part time at sea to qualify for tax credit and incentivizes businesses to help employers pay off employees’ student loans with an expanded tax credit.

These three bills will be working through the Education, Taxation and Appropriation committees in the coming days.

Of interest in today’s modest committee schedule is LD 1642, An Act Regarding Stolen Valor, sponsored by Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau. This bill would amend Maine’s theft by deception law to include false claims of being a military veteran. Any fines collected for violations of this law would be deposited in the Maine Military Family Relief Fund. — Christopher Cousins

Voter intimidation bill sent to LePage

LD 1574, An Act to Protect Maine Voters from Intimidating Video Recording at the Polls, has been enacted by the House and Senate and has been sent to Gov. LePage for consideration.

The bill creates a 15-foot minimum distance between videographers and people signing petitions, collecting signatures or conducting other business at polling places. Democratic Sen. Bill Diamond, who sponsored the bill after complaints emerged on Election Day in November 2015 about a group called Project Dirigo, which recorded people who were gathering signatures to force a referendum this year on requiring background checks for gun sales.

Diamond, a former Maine secretary of state, said the bill will give election workers guidance and authority.

“The election is the linchpin of our democracy and we cannot allow voters to be intimidated away from their right and privilege as citizens to cast a ballot,” said Diamond in a written statement.

LePage has 10 days to sign the bill, veto it or let it go into law without his signature. — Christopher Cousins

Quick hits

  • LD 1647, LePage’s proposal to suspend driver’s licenses for six months for people convicted of criminal drug crimes, will come to the full Legislature with a divided report out of the Criminal Justice Committee. The committee voted 7-6 against the bill on Tuesday. According to testimony on Tuesday, passage of the bill would fend off Maine losing $13 million a year in federal highway funding. The state has been asking for and granted a waiver on this issue for years, but LePage has decided not to apply for the waiver because he believes this bill will help in the fight against drugs in Maine. This bill should garner considerable debate in the Legislature.
  • Daniel Wathen, the former Maine Supreme Judicial Court chief justice who is now the courtmaster for the state’s mental health consent decree, is continuing his court action against the Department of Health and Human Services around staffing problems at the state-run Riverview Psychiatric Center. In a new Superior Court filing on Tuesday, Wathen indicated that he has reached agreement with DHHS on several of the corrective actions he recommended in February. Wathen has now made specific recommendations on two other issues related to staffing.
  • Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King introduced legislation Tuesday that would extend the Access Received Closer to Home (ARCH) program for another five years. The pilot program, which has been in place since 2011, is set to expire in August of this year without congressional action. It operates at five pilot sites across the country, including Aroostook County, which is operates out of Cary Medical Center in Caribou. The program allows veterans in rural areas to receive medical care without having to travel long distance to Veterans Administration hospitals.

Reading list

OK, OK: here’s your soundtrack

Folk singer Stompin’ Tom Connors has been described to me by an authority who I trust as Canada’s Woody Guthrie. Since being introduced to Stompin’ Tom, I cruise through his music on YouTube regularly and I’m becoming a big fan. He’s not from Quebec, but in honor of Franco-American Day, I give you Bud the Spud, which I think you’ll enjoy regardless of your thoughts about potatoes. — Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.