20220111-LOC-Statehouse

The N.H. Statehouse in Concord.

Gov. Chris Sununu is urging state lawmakers to rethink their opposition to using $17 million in federal funds to attract new workers by helping pay off a portion of their student loan debt.

Pitched by the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery, the measure is not dead, but it may be on life support.

It was tabled 10-0 on a bipartisan vote by the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Committee on Dec. 17. It was supposed to come up again Friday, but the office has withdrawn the item while it works on the proposal.

There is no exact timeline for when the measure will be resubmitted. The money is part of the federal government’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act that has funded dozens of programs in New Hampshire to promote public health, economic recovery and other priorities.

Committee members said it wouldn’t be fair to help some students pay off college loans when this benefit was not offered in the past and others paid off debt on their own.

Another criticism was that it should be up to business, not government, to provide employee recruitment incentives and that this would be a wasteful use of taxpayer money.

But Sununu and Taylor Caswell, executive director of the office, say this incentive could be an important tool to boost the workforce. Companies in health care and other industries throughout the state, including the Monadnock Region, say they simply can’t find enough workers.

The plan would have used federal pandemic relief funds to pay off up to $20,000 of student loan debt for more than 1,000 people who agree to take a position in New Hampshire and hold that job for four years.

Anyone with education or training debt would be eligible for the program, which would start early this year, if approved by the Joint Fiscal Committee.

“It incentivizes young people not just to get to work, but to get to work here in New Hampshire, with the idea that we can help pay down student debt,” Sununu said at a news conference Thursday in response to a question from The Sentinel.

“It’s a one-plus-one-equals-three win on that issue because you want students to have some financial flexibility, but most of all you want them here in New Hampshire.

“So we have federal money to implement programs like that. I just hope [the legislators] reconsider. It’s just saying, ‘As you stay and work here in New Hampshire, in most industries, we can pay down your student debt.’ That’s a win for everybody.”

Before they can go into effect, such proposals have to clear both the fiscal committee and the Executive Council. The council has already approved it.

Councilor Cindi Warmington, whose district covers Keene and many surrounding communities, supports it.

Such programs are not new, she said. The state already uses student loan relief as an incentive to recruit doctors to underserved areas of the state.

“We are in the midst of a global pandemic,” Warmington said. “This is money that isn’t typically available to us but it is now because we are facing extraordinary circumstances. I would support using it to bring employees to the state to address a severe, severe workforce shortage the likes of which we haven’t seen before.”

Caswell said such programs are proven to be useful in recruiting workers.

“We didn’t feel it was a very controversial or untested approach,” he said.

“We have employers in the state that are screaming for more people to meet the demands of their businesses.

“If they choose to not go this direction we’re going to continue to try to find solutions to for the workforce issue.”

In terms of fairness for students past or present who might not have access to this program, Caswell said there are limits to what the government can do.

“This is a program like any other program,” Caswell said. “It starts at a certain date and has certain goals. Unfortunately I can’t necessarily claim that it is a 100 percent fair program, but what is a fair program?”

“If [the legislators] choose to not go this direction, we’re going to continue to try to find solutions for the workforce issue.”

Rick Green can be reached at RGreen@KeeneSentinel.com or 603-355-8567.

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