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Top Democrat touts welfare reform

Speaker of the House Mark W. Eves, D-North Berwick

Speaker of the House Mark W. Eves, D-North Berwick

Speaker of the House Mark W. Eves (D-North Berwick) took to the pages of MaineToday Media’s Kennebec Journal Friday in an attempt to answer a question posed by Assistant House Minority Alex Willette (R-Mapelton): “Will Maine Democrats support any attempt to reform welfare?”

The question was raised following Eves’ rapid rejection of two welfare reform proposals House Majority Leader Ken Fredette (R-Newport) has offered for the coming legislative session.

On Friday, Eves attempted to tout a welfare reform the Democrats did support.

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“On Oct. 10, this newspaper published a column by Rep. Alex Willette of Mapleton, assistant minority leader of the Maine House, which asked if Maine Democrats will ever support any attempt to reform welfare,” wrote Eves. “The answer, of course, is yes, and we have.”

Eves said the  so-called “Ticket to Work” reform law Democrats passed “stands in stark contrast with the so-called “welfare reform” touted by Gov. Paul LePage and his Republican allies.”

“The “Ticket to Work” law ensures that people who receive temporary help from the state go through an immediate and comprehensive assessment to identify and coordinate the training, education and tools they need to find long-term employment,” said Eves. “After applicants come through the door, they are  assessed and connected with tools they need. This ensures they are ready to work and secure long term employment.”

“It’s the right route to reform for the state’s anti-poverty programs,” he said.

One problem: the Department of Health and Human Services was already doing everything Eves’ welfare reform proposed to do. In fact, the original legislation, sponsored by Eves, had to be amended in order not to restrict the department’s ability to accomplish its goal.

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Dale Denno, director of the Office for Family Independence at DHHS, testified regarding the bill on May 3. He said the proposals for this contracted service were submitted to the Department on May 2, “with an expected contract date of July 1, 2013 and a service start date of October 1, 2013.”

In other words, everything Eves’ sought to do was already being done.

Denno testified further, “One area of concern in the existing language of this LD is around the ability of the Department to hold participants accountable for failing to comply with the steps necessary to complete their assessment.”

“The current language states ‘A participant identified as qualifying for the comprehensive screening and assessment under this subsection may not be sanctioned for failing to comply with an assigned activity until assessment results are received and reviewed by the department,” he said.

According to Denno, an “assigned assessment” may include attendance at assessment appoints. “A completed assessment is critical to meaningful engagement of [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] adults and their preparation for independence in TANF,” he said.

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“The Department must have the ability to hold people accountable for attending their scheduled assessment appointments,” he said.

The bill, L.D. 1343, was eventually amended in order to restore the ability to sanction non-compliant TANF recipients — a provision Eves’ original bill would have removed.

“This bill simply codified in statute what HHS is already doing,” said Willette. “Democrats need to join us in taking welfare reform many steps further.”

“Governor LePage has really changed the culture at DHHS after years of Democrats encouraging welfare dependence and abuse,” he said.

“If Democratic leadership really cares about moving people from welfare to work, they must accept the reality that Maine people see every day: our welfare system needs reform,” he said.

One welfare reform proposals submitted by the GOP would require that applicants for cash welfare assistance search for a job before seeking public assistance. The other would clean up ambiguous statutory language and was developed in coordination with officials from DHHS.

Both reforms are likely to become hot button issues in January.

The LePage administration has made welfare reform a top priority for the next session, while Democrats have insisted that the proposed changes to Maine’s welfare system are merely attempts to vilify the poor.

Steve Robinson
Maine Wire Reporter
SERobinson@themainewire.com

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