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Mitch Everts, a sophomore at the University of Montana, drafted a bill to give students another way to pay off their loans. The legislation, known as the People’s Bill, gives students the choice to withhold 3 percent to 10 percent of their income tax in order to pay off their debt.

MIKENSI ROMERSA/Missoulian

Two Missoula Democrats have agreed to sponsor a bill aimed at giving students more options when repaying their college loans.

State Sen. Sue Malek and Nate McConnell, the Democratic candidate running unopposed in House District 89, announced over the weekend they would co-sponsor the People’s Bill during the 2015 Legislature.

“Our economy is sagging under student loan debt, which is preventing graduates from buying cars and homes and just moving out of Mom and Dad’s basement,” said Malek. “We need to welcome students into our economy.”

Written by University of Montana student Mitch Everts, the measure would give state college students the option of repaying their loans by withholding an additional 3 percent to 10 percent of their income taxes. The state would transfer the funds to the U.S. Department of Education.

Malek said the topic of student debt didn’t come up during the 2013 Legislature. But the issue has become more pressing, she said, and it deserves lawmakers’ attention.

“I think this will begin the conversation,” Malek said. “I’m hoping we can get Republican support because of the bill’s simplicity. It incentivizes loan repayment, and students struggling under college debt would potentially pay off their loans faster.”

A recent survey conducted by campus advocates suggests the People’s Bill has wide support among University of Montana students. That survey questioned 1,000 students and found that 957 of them would be willing to withhold additional earnings to repay their college debt, Everts said.

Last month, the Montana Organizing Project, the Forward Montana Foundation and the Alliance for a Just Society also launched a student debt campaign aimed at the 2015 Legislature.

The groups are expected to call on the state to increase its funding for higher education and to place more focus on need-based financial aid. Gov. Steve Bullock and other lawmakers have said that a continued freeze on college tuition is being discussed.

“I support the People’s Bill because it addresses the fundamental problem of how Montana families can shoulder the increasing burden of student loan debt,” said McConnell, the bill’s co-sponsor. “I look forward to working with legislators of every political stripe on this common-sense solution to the very real and growing problem of student loan debt.”

In 2007, the average debt held by a Montana graduate was $17,869. By 2012, that figure had jumped to $27,475, shifting a greater financial burden onto students. Still, achieving a four-year degree in Montana remains among the lowest in the nation, though the rate of default continues to rise.

Over the last fiscal year, the Department of Education reported more than $35 billion nationally in outstanding student loans, with the average borrower more than $16,000 in default.

Everts and other supports believe the bill would reduce the number of Montana students who default on their college loans. It could also save taxpayers by recovering money lent to student borrowers.

“The simplicity of the program is ideal,” Malek said.

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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