One of Maine’s biggest challenges is keeping our economy on solid footing by growing our workforce. In this strong economy, with record-low unemployment and private-sector growth, employers are seeking skilled workers. When they don’t find them, growth is stopped in its tracks.

To keep our workforce and supply needed workers for our growing employers in health care, payment systems, technology, steel and metal fabrication, and many other industries, we must do more to retain and attract college-educated young people to Maine. We desperately need to make it easier for college graduates to stay in Maine, as well as to attract skilled professionals from away.

Even though our state universities have done an admirable job keeping tuition down — remarkably, not increasing it for six years during the economic downturn — college is expensive. Many students graduate with high levels of student loan debt. In fact, the average student loan indebtedness for a Mainer is approximately $31,000. This ranks us as eighth highest in the nation. Over 200,000 Mainers have some form of student debt. That’s not just doctors. It’s also schoolteachers, engineers, speech therapists and dental hygienists.

This problem is more than just an employment issue. Even with a good job, it can be hard for a new professional to buy a home and settle down, because of the debt load and high interest rates from obtaining their professional degree. A high interest rate makes the problem even worse.

[Opinion: Student debt is crushing Mainers’ dreams. That’s a drag on our economy.]

That’s why, together with Gov. Paul LePage, I am proposing legislation — LD 1834 — that would authorize a $50 million general obligation bond to offer zero percent student loans and loan refinancing. Eligibility would be tied to living and working in Maine. But if you are from another state and move here to live and work, you would be eligible for loan consolidation or refinancing.

The program would be administered by the Finance Authority of Maine, which has great experience and expertise in running programs like this. The finance authority administers a variety of other student loan and loan repayment programs, as well as a highly successful 529 college savings plan.

The eligibility requirement for the loan is basic: in-state study followed by five years of in-state work. That means living and working here in Maine and paying off your student loans, interest free.

However, and this is significant, the loan consolidation-refinance portion would also cover both private student loans and federal loans, even if you did not attend college or university in Maine. This means students who move here after graduation to work could also qualify for a debt consolidation of their high interest out-of-state loans. And if their career takes them elsewhere (perhaps their growing Maine employer sends them to be the new West Coast salesperson), the loan is still available but would increase to a reasonable interest rate of prime plus 2 percent.

[Opinion: A student loan should not mean a lifetime of debt. Maine lawmakers can help.]

Our bold bipartisan plan is designed to help Maine students better afford higher education and to have an incentive to live and work in Maine after graduation. And for graduates from other parts of the country considering careers in Maine, it is an excellent draw to move here and start a career.

This would be an entirely new program. No other state has a program like it. I am excited to have the chance to work with my legislative colleagues from both sides of the aisle in a bipartisan manner to make sure this new idea is the best it can be. That’s the only way we’ll be successful in making our case to the voters of Maine.

If we’re successful, newly minted graduates with jobs in Maine could begin refinancing loans at zero percent as soon as next year.

Rep. Martin Grohman of Biddeford is an independent serving his second term in the Maine Legislature. He is a member of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

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