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Joe Biden's student loan forgiveness plan is praised, panned by Maine's federal lawmakers

President Joe Biden speaks about student loan debt forgiveness in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022, in Washington. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona listens at right.
Evan Vucci
President Joe Biden speaks about student loan debt forgiveness in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022, in Washington. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona listens at right.

President Joe Biden's student loan forgiveness plan received mixed review Wednesday from members of Maine's congressional delegation.

According to an estimate from the Maine Center for Economic Policy, a left-leaning think tank, Biden’s proposal would benefit roughly 177,000 student loan borrowers in Maine, or roughly 95% of those who have taken out federal loans. To be eligible, borrowers must earn less than $125,000 a year or $250,000 for a married couple. According to federal statistics, the average student loan debt in Maine is roughly $33,000.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine's 1st District was the only member of the delegation to embrace the plan to forgive $10,000 or $20,000 in debt for borrowers, depending on whether they were Pell Grant recipients. The Democrat noted that an estimated 1 in 5 Americans carries student debt and that the crisis predates the pandemic.

“Waiving $10,000 of student debt and extending the zero-interest payment pause is an important step towards addressing the crisis that has been crushing Americans for decades,” Pingree said in a statement. “Now, we must rethink our system that fostered this crisis in the first place: charging taxpayers seeking an education interest on their own money.”

Pingree, who is facing a challenge this fall from Republican Ed Thelander, is co-sponsoring a bill that would allow borrowers to refinance their federal loans at a rate of 0%.

Independent U.S. Sen. Angus King has made student loan reform a high priority since arriving in Washington nearly a decade and was a key architect of a law that lowered interest rates. But while King has pushed for loan forgiveness for veterans and family members of deceased borrowers, a spokesman said the independent believes more needs to be done on the issue of college costs.

While Senator King recognizes the value of President Biden’s means-tested, limited student loan move, he believes the skyrocketing cost of college is something that needs to be addressed more directly and sustainably,” the spokesperson said a statement. “Making higher education affordable and accessible is crucial to developing a 21st century workforce, supporting Maine’s growing industries, and providing every young American an opportunity for success.”

Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins was more critical. Collins said she has advocated for forgiving loans for health care professionals working in underserved areas and supports federal assistance programs such as the Pell Grant program, which is aimed at lower-income students, and the GI bill for military service members and veterans.

“President Biden’s decision, however, to cancel student debt for couples making as much as $250,000 is inherently unfair to millions of hardworking Americans who chose not to pursue higher education; paid their own way to attend a community college, trade school, or certificate program; or paid off their student loans,” Collins said in a statement. “Essentially, the president is requiring a hardworking logger to subsidize a graduate of Yale who is earning far more but has student loans.”

Democratic Rep. Jared Golden, meanwhile, is again on a different page than his party's leaders, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who praised the president’s actions.

“This decision by the president is out of touch with what the majority of the American people want from the White House, which is leadership to address the most immediate challenges the country is facing,” Golden said in a statement. “The president should be taking action to reduce inflationary pressures; with this move, he potentially makes them worse. It is out of step with the needs and values of working class Americans, and I do not support the president’s decision.”

Golden will face off against former Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin and independent Tiffany Bond this November.

In a statement, Poliquin said Biden “chose to use working Mainers' tax dollars to pay off the debts of college graduates” at a time when working families have their own mortgages, car payments and higher grocery and heating bills.

Bond, meanwhile, said in a tweet on Tuesday as news was breaking about Biden’s plans that the forgiveness proposal was “a non-solution to a predatory interest problem.”

“It frees up some folks and leaves others mired in inescapable debt in perpetuity because the problem has been checked off as handled,” Bond said. “Get. Rid. Of. The. Damn. Interest. All of it.”

But Jody Harris, vice president for operations and finance at the Maine Center for Economic Policy, predicted that the change will benefit roughly 177,000 Maine residents. Harris also noted that Maine borrowers tend to carry more debt than the national average.

“Student debt causes people to delay making major decisions in their life, whether it’s having a family, starting a business or even buying a house, which is really holding back our economy,” Harris said in an interview. “So I think, just all the way around, it is a good idea to help people with opportunities and to help Maine’s economy.”