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Taxpayers Could Pay For State Employees' Student Loan Costs

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A bill passed overwhelmingly by the Oklahoma Legislature will allow state agencies to use taxpayer money to pay student loan costs for full-time state employees.

The measure, which will take effect July 1, gives state agencies the flexibility to compete when private companies try to lure state employees with the promise of paying some of their college costs, said Scott Barger, the deputy director of the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, the group that proposed the bill.

``That's just a tool. It doesn't mandate that any agency has to utilize it,'' Barger said. ``But if they have funds available in their budget, they can go ahead and take part in that program.''

The bill passed the House by a 93-3 vote and the Senate by a 47-0 vote. The measure will allow eligible employees to earn up to a $5,000 loan expense payment every year for every 2,000 hours worked or 50 40-hour weeks worked. An employee can be reimbursed a maximum of $15,000.

Barger said that because each agency would use only its available funds, and not money set aside for the program, it will have no financial impact on the state.

``The intent is that it would be something that benefits the agency,'' Barger said.

``The private sector companies will come in and, for instance, with a social worker give them a job and to incentivize it they'll repay some of their college loans,'' Barger said.

Matthew Nowlin, an employee with the state Employment Security Commission, came up with the idea.

``This is an important step in recruiting the next generation of state employees and will also encourage recent graduates to consider public service and to stay in the state and help build the future of Oklahoma,'' Nowlin said.

Language in the bill also will ensure all state workers must be paid at least the annual salary established by federal poverty guidelines for a family of three, which is $17,150. About 200 of the state's 36,000 workers now earn less than that amount.
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