Gov. Janet Mills pledged on Thursday to provide $500 direct payments to hundreds of thousands of Mainers, make two years of community college free for high school students, and overhaul the state student debt relief program.
In her annual state of the state address, Mills said Maine remains “strong” and touted progress in fighting COVID-19 over the past year. She acknowledged the toll that the pandemic has had on the state over the past two years.
“We have been through some difficult and dangerous times together these last 23 months,” the Democrat said during her hour-long speech, which she delivered in person before the state Legislature. “This state, and this nation, have endured a time like no other, fending off a pervasive, unceasing threat to our lives and to our livelihoods.”
Mills, who is seeking a second term in the November elections amid a challenge from former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, said despite the impact of the pandemic the state’s financial position is strong. She cited that Maine has one of the fastest growing economies in New England, which has helped the state to rack up surplus funds of more than $822 million.
She unveiled plans to provide $500 direct payments to more than 800,000 residents – using roughly half of those surplus funds – to help Mainers cover rising costs fueled by inflation.
“I cannot control the impact of COVID-19 on global markets, but I can make sure that we deliver to Maine people the resources they need to grapple with these rising costs as we rebuild a stronger sustainable economy that is more resilient to the whims of the rest of the world,” she said.
Mills said the plan to cover two years of community college for Maine students targets students who have been most impacted by the pandemic.
Under the plan, the state would cover the cost of tuition and fees for a two-year associate degree or one-year certificate program at a Maine Community College System for students from the high school graduating classes of 2020 to 2023. To qualify, students must enroll full-time, qualify for in-state tuition or commit to living and working in the state.
Students already enrolled in a two-year community college program would be eligible to receive funding to cover their second year of study, according to the Mills administration.
The Mills administration estimates about 8,000 students will qualify for the program, which will cost the state an estimated $20 million.
In her speech, Mills said the new program will allow students “to graduate unburdened by debt and ready to enter the workforce.”
Mills also announced plans to overhaul the Maine Opportunity Tax Credit eligibility criteria to allow more students to be eligible for up to $25,000 of debt relief over the course of their lifetime, if they meet the criteria.
“School debt is a heavy burden that prevents young people from starting a business, affording a mortgage or paying their bills and achieving their full potential,” she said. “It is simply unacceptable.
Mills also highlighted her upcoming agenda, including plans to expand child care, increase education funding, make school lunches free, and expand broadband access.
“We will make progress on the opioid epidemic, on improving the child welfare system, on combating climate change, on bringing down the cost of electricity and curbing our reliance on fossil fuels to cut energy costs, and on addressing the devastating impact of PFAS on our health and livelihoods,” she said. “We will make that progress.”
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