FOAA Friday: Student Debt

John Clarke Russ | BDN

After a great conversation on Twitter and lots of (sometimes lyrical) encouragement, I’ve decided to make filing and following up on some Freedom of Access requests a regular part of this blog.

I therefore declare today to be the first FOAA Friday.

The idea is to request specific information that isn’t otherwise available and that could be relevant to Maine politics and policy on a semi-regular basis, while also using the whole thing as an exercise to examine the Freedom of Access process itself.

For the first request, I’ve decided to do some digging into an area that holds a special interest for me: post-secondary education funding and Maine’s student debt burden.

For years, I’ve written about how the debt burden Maine places on its students has steadily increased, to the point where we’re now first in the nation. The Opportunity Maine Program, which began as a citizen initiative six years ago but was passed directly into law by the legislature before it could go to referendum, is meant to address some of this problem. The idea is that students who go to a Maine institute of higher learning and then stay in the state can have the full cost of their loan payments reimbursed through tax credits.

Here’s what I wrote at the time of the program’s implementation:

Any post-secondary education policy wonk will tell you that back-end tax credits, while politically popular, do little to increase access to college. By presenting the Opportunity Maine tax credits as a contract and a guarantee, however, the drafters of this legislation have created a system that may make it easier at the front-end as well and increase both access to education and the retention of skilled graduates without high burdens of debt. I hope they’re studying the results closely to see how it works.

To my knowledge, in the five years since implementation, there hasn’t been that kind of public examination. To that end, here’s the Freedom of Access request I submitted this morning to David Bauer at Maine Revenue Services regarding the use of the Educational Opportunity Tax Credit:

Hi David,

I write the Tipping Point blog at the Bangor Daily News.

I’d like to make a request under the Freedom of Access Act for an electronic copy of the following information:

1. The number of students in repayment that have applied for of the Opportunity Maine tax credit and the number whose applications were approved in each of the years it has been offered

2. The total amount of loan reimbursements that have been paid through the Opportunity Maine tax credit in each of the years it has been offered

3. The number of successful applicants for the Opportunity Maine tax credit whose employers made eligible education loan payments on their behalf in each of the years it has been offered

I request a waiver of any fees as I believe this request is in the public interest and is not undertaken for commercial reasons (in compliance with 1 M.R.S.A. § 408 (6)). I may publish some or all of the information resulting from this request.

If you have any questions about or suggestions for modifying this request in order to better obtain information about the Opportunity Maine program, please feel free to contact me at this email address or at [phone number].

Thank you,

-Mike

This won’t answer all the potential questions about the effect of the program, but it should put us on the right track.

If you’re ever wondering who to send a FOAA request to for a specific state department, there’s a handy contact list here. You can find information on how to formulate a request here.

Here’s the note I received back from David just a few hours later:

Hey Mike – got your e-mail, expect to get a formal response from me next week.

Regards,

David E. Bauer, Esq.
Tax Policy Analyst
Maine Revenue Services

According to Maine law, the government agency has to respond to the request “within a reasonable period of time” and must respond within five working days if they deny all or part of the request. Usually, for a request like this, a response is forthcoming in just a few days. I’ll post updates here as I learn more.

Mike Tipping

About Mike Tipping

Mike writes about Maine politics and policy with a focus on analysis and explanation. He works at the Maine People's Alliance and Maine People's Resource Center, writes a political column for the Portland Press Herald