Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Column: Live in Maine? Pay me

Published in the Current and the American Journal

I’m 29 years old, I hold a master’s degree, and I live in Maine. The state should pay me to stay here.

In November 2001, the State Planning Office issued its “30 and 1000” report, saying that the two keys to improving and stabilizing Maine’s economy, income level and state tax revenue are having 30 percent of adults over age 25 with a four-year degree, and spending $1,000 per worker on research and development into new products and possibilities.

Evan Richert, who was director of the SPO when that report came out, spoke in Cape Elizabeth recently and continued his push toward that goal.

In terms of the 30 percent goal, he said about 23 or 24 percent of adults in Maine now have four-year degrees, up from 19 percent in 2001.

As for research and development money, it can be hard to come by in a state with a big budget crunch. The Maine Technology Institute, which provides seed money for R&D, is losing 10 percent of its funding under Gov. John Baldacci’s proposed spending for 2004-2005.

There is a lot of talk, but little action yet, about spending a few million to retool the state’s technical colleges into community colleges, and the UMaine system is also looking for money to spend on R&D, even as its budget belt tightens.

But there is an easy way to move closer to the “30” benchmark: Help the Mainers who already have four-year degrees.

We’re already looking to other states for opportunities, especially those of us who are young. It’s cheaper to live in other states, and incomes are higher too.

Why should we stay in Maine, and why should people move here from elsewhere, when the cost of living is substantially similar, wages are much lower and there are fewer good jobs?

I would like to feel that the state recognizes my presence here as contributing to its economic well-being both now and in the future. Right now, I feel unappreciated by the state that is my home.

The simple solution is money, but how do you allocate it fairly?

One way would be through the state income tax. The state and individuals already use the income tax to exchange money. If I paid too much, the state gives it back; if I didn’t, I write the state a check.

Maine should add a box to the income tax form: “Check here if you are over the age of 25 and have a four-year degree.” Checking that box would permit a taxpayer to add, say, $500 to the standard deduction amount. For single filers, that would bump the amount of money exempt from taxes up from $7,550 to $8,050.

Married filers would go up from $6,775 to $7,275 per person. If the state wanted to, it could require a photocopy of a college transcript be filed with the return – most of us have one somewhere, and I’d find it if it meant money in my pocket.

The tax rate on taxable earnings after the first $16,950 is 8.5 percent. By offering an increase in the standard deduction, the state would be losing in tax revenue 8.5 percent of that $500, per person with a degree, or $42.50 a head.

If one-fourth of the 1,275,000 people in Maine have a degree, there are just under 320,000 of us. It’s a rough estimate, but that would cost $13.6 million in lost revenue for the state. That’s far less than the $43 million being allocated for R&D, and less than the $50 million to assist students in paying for higher education. It would be about 1 percent of what the state now collect in income tax – just over $1 billion – and less than 0.2 percent of what the state spends.

That $42.50 wouldn’t hurt the state budget much, or permit me to buy a lot, but it would say Maine’s government was thinking about me and valued my presence here. If Maine is trying to up the number of folks with college degrees, it should look at keeping what it has as a starting point.