AUGUSTA – In a shocking display of partisanship, the Democrat-controlled Legislative Council on Wednesday killed two Republican-backed bills – one to reform Maine’s welfare system, the other to enhance protections for victims of human trafficking.
The Legislative Council, a body of leading lawmakers chaired by House Speaker Mark W. Eves (D-North Berwick), is charged with screening bills for the second regular session of the Legislature.
While the council voted to allow Eves’ Medicaid expansion bill to move forward, despite concerns it violated a duplication rule, it blocked House Minority Leader Ken Fredette’s (R-Newport) welfare reform bill and Rep. Amy Volk’s (R-Scarborough) bill to help victims of human trafficking.
Fredette’s bill would have required seekers of cash assistance welfare to first look for work, while Volk’s bill would have cleared prostitution charges from the records of victims of human trafficking.
Speaker Eves’ office did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Welfare Reform vs. Welfare Expansion
Fredette’s welfare bill would have enacted a front-end work search requirement, meaning applicants for cash welfare assistance would be required to demonstrate that they have searched for a job prior to applying for public assistance. Another bill from Fredette would have cleaned up statutory language pertaining to job training programs welfare recipients are required to enter while receiving benefits. The council also voted this down.
When Fredette first announced his intention to introduce welfare reform, Democrats immediately rejected the proposal as an attempt to “vilify” poor people, and they followed through with their stated intentions by rejecting the proposal through the Legislative Council. The only Democrat on the panel who did not vote to reject Fredette’s bills was Rep. Jeff McCabe (R-Skowhegan).
Just moments after voting to reject welfare reform, Democrats and one Republican voted to move forward another proposal to expand Maine’s medical welfare program, known as Medicaid or MaineCare. The Medicaid expansion bill was moved along despite legislative rules prohibiting the reintroduction of a bill that has already been defeated. Assistant Senate Minority Leader Roger Katz (R-Augusta) crossed party lines to vote in favor of letting Medicaid expansion come before the Legislature.
Fredette will have an attempt to appeal the council’s decisions in November. If the appeal is unsuccessful, he has said he will ask Gov. Paul R. LePage to introduce his bills.
“Democrats bent the rules in order to push welfare expansion while simultaneously rejecting any attempt at welfare reform,” said Fredette. “This uneven application of the rules seemed like something that would happen in Washington.”
Said Fredette, ““For the sake of our budget, for the sake of our economy, and for the sake of fairness, we must rein in this out-of-control welfare system. Governor LePage and Republican lawmakers have put us on the path to welfare reform, but there’s a long way to go and Democrats are obstructing it at every turn.”
LePage press secretary Adrienne Bennett said it was too early to speculate whether there is a need for the governor to introduce welfare reform bills, but that such reforms are clearly needed. She also said the Democrats’ decision to attempt another expansion of Medicaid is bad policy.
“Maine has a welfare program that is not serving Mainers adequately,” said Bennett. She said it is one thing to provide taxpayer-funded benefits, “but another to provide a quality safety net for those individuals.”
“There are 3,100 disabled and elderly on waiting lists for services today, and welfare expansion would send state tax dollars to cover able-bodied adults that could be used instead to help those disabled and frail elderly waiting for home and community supports,” she said. Bennett said the state should “fix the broken system that is plagued by inflexibility from the federal government to improve the programs that work best for Maine before we can even consider adding more individuals to the state’s welfare programs.”
Maine GOP Chairman Rick Bennett condemned the Democrats’ decision to kill welfare reform while simultaneously breaking legislative rules to advance Medicaid expansion.
“Since they regained the Legislature last year, Democrats have been trying to ram through a massive welfare expansion,” said Bennett. “They have ignored the waiting lists of truly disabled Mainers waiting for services while trying to expand medical welfare programs to cover tens of thousands of able-bodied Maine people.”
Bennett said Joint Rule 217 — the rule which typically prevents any lawmaker from dredging up already-defeated measures in the same Legislature — is not new. “When I was President of the Maine Senate 11 years ago, this was a rule that was honored and adhered to by both parties,” he said.
“But Democrats today are not about to let the rules get in the way of more welfare spending,” he said. “There is no way to justify the misuse of a single rule to both promote welfare expansion and kill welfare reform in a single day.”
Volk worked with the Polaris Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting human trafficking, to craft her bill. She said she was inspired to do something after a report by the organization ranked Maine in the bottom half of states for anti-trafficking laws. Fourteen other states have protections for women who are victims of sex trafficking similar to those proposed in Volk’s bill.
Volk said the party line vote rejecting her bill was a lost opportunity for bipartisanship.
“I’m disappointed that the bill was killed along party lines because I thought it was a chance for all of us to work together on an issue that, if it impacts one life, is one life too many,” she said. “I had been contacted by women from both parties about cosponsoring the bill and there seemed to be a lot of interest, but for some reason Democratic leadership did not consider it a priority.”
“Democratic leadership approved many relatively minor bills, and if helping the women who fall victim to sex trafficking isn’t a priority, I don’t know what is,” she said. Maine’s Constitution reserves the second regular session of the Legislature for “emergency” and budget-related bills.
“There are women out there carrying prostitution convictions even though they had no control over their circumstances,” she said. “Because of today’s decision, they may have to wait another year or more to appeal the convictions that are holding them back in terms of jobs and education.”
Other Republican women echoed Volk’s concern about the Democrats’ decision to reject a bill to help female victims of human trafficking.
“We hear a lot about a ‘war on women’ being waged by Republicans, but this goes to show that the real offenders are oftentimes Democrats,” said Rep. Joyce Maker (R-Calais).
“I’m shocked by the priorities of Democratic leaders today,” said Rep. Beth Turner (R-Burlington). “This bill should have passed unanimously.”
Volk has until Nov. 6 to appeal the council’s decision.
This story will be updated
Maine Wire Reporter