A graduate's cap making fun of student debt is seen during the University of Maine's 215th Commencement at Alfond Arena in Orono, May 13, 2017. Credit: Ashley L. Conti

Maine’s legislative committees will begin meetings with more than 2,000 bills to review. Many of this session’s bills seek to support students and relieve some of the burden of student loan debt by providing tax credits, repayment, or refinancing assistance.

Building a bridge from our graduates to our workforce will ensure a strong future for Maine. Economic development may stall without a robust student debt relief package that will encourage graduates to stay and work here.

The November 2018 voter approval of Questions 4 and 5 demonstrated Mainers’ understanding of the importance of attracting and retaining workers to strengthen Maine’s economy. These two bond issues focus on improving and modernizing the facilities of Maine’s public higher education systems in order to better support and train students.

But infrastructure improvements are only part of the solution. In order to provide the wrap-around support that students need to succeed outside of the classroom, student debt relief must be part of the conversation. Maine’s workforce will face an uphill battle without it.

In 2017, Sen. Nate Libby sponsored a bill that could have relieved some of that pressure. Too often, the choice between staying in Maine and leaving for a job that will pay enough to cover student loan bills finds Maine on the losing side. Our state’s population challenges are well known. The divide between working age families and Mainers over the age of 65 is out of balance and continues to grow. Losing the economic engine of a younger workforce will make Maine a tougher place for everyone to live.

In its original form, LD 1163 was titled An Act to Authorize a General Fund Bond Issue to Provide Funding for a Program of Student Debt Cancellation and Refinancing. This bill sought to address a gap in support for graduates who stayed in Maine by issuing state bonds.

This legislation offered a unique approach with its focus on supporting graduates with non-federal student loan debt. This kind of debt often comes with prohibitively rates and payment terms that exhaust budgets. These loans typically do not qualify for governmental cancellation programs and the private firms that hold them often do not offer refinancing options. Libby’s bill could have closed a gap for Mainers struggling to stay in Maine.

Last year, work stalled as a result of the polarized climate in Augusta. It was a difficult time for legislation and many good ideas were lost amidst thick partisanship. In the wake of a three-day government shutdown, the bill faltered, despite support from Gov. Paul LePage. The political power and social will necessary to move this forward simply did not exist.

But there’s a new day in Maine government. Bipartisan support for strengthening Maine’s economy promises that good ideas receive a fair hearing. We have enthusiasm for expanding opportunities for students and wide-scale interest in economic development initiatives. Several bills have been submitted to support student success and it will be important for our legislators to work together to build a Maine that offers their best chance. Combining the best aspects of these bills from both sides of the aisle will help good ideas become impactful legislation.

As work begins on projects that will improve and modernize public higher education in counties all across our state, the potential for statewide benefit is hard to dismiss. Reinvigorated student debt relief legislation should be seen as one of many complimentary instruments that will help to infuse our state with the vibrant and well-supported workforce that we need.

Laura Cyr is a Ph.D. student at the University of Southern Maine. This column reflects her views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.