AUGUSTA – Fixing Maine’s sprawling Department of Health and Human Services programs will fall on Gov. Paul LePage’s shoulders once again following the Democrat-controlled Legislative Council’s decision Thursday to reject every single welfare reform bill.
“We’re not trying to vilify the poor. I grew up poor,” said House Minority Leader Ken Fredette (R-Newport), as he urged his Democratic colleagues to allow his three welfare reform bills full hearings in the Legislature beginning this January.
Fredette’s reform package included three bills, the first of which would enact a front-end work search requirement for individuals seeking welfare. The bill is based on the simple proposition that people should look for a job before they look for public assistance.
Assistant House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe (D-Skowhegan) crossed the aisle to support the front-end work search requirement at the first screening of legislation, but declined to support it on appeal.
One reason McCabe and his fellow Democrats voted against the reform could be the LePage administration’s announcement earlier in the week of a contract with The Alexander Group to study Maine’s welfare system and recommend avenues for reform.
“I’m having trouble seeing why we would bring this bill in if it’s something taxpayers are paying $1 million to study,” said McCabe, referring to the combined state and federal cost of the contract.
Other lawmakers, including House Minority Leader Seth Berry (D-Bowdoinham), raised similar challenges to reform, questioning whether considering them in January would lead to duplicitous activities in the Legislature and Executive branch.
It was unclear whether or to what extent the LePage administration and House Republicans have cooperated on a welfare reform strategy.
Fredette’s two other reform bills would have established a study group to examine the feasibility of a tiered welfare system and cleared up ambiguous statutory language regarding exceptions from a welfare work search program.
A tiered system would decrease perverse incentives for welfare recipients who may avoid accepting a raise or making more money because of the risk of losing their benefits. The changes to exceptions from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) ASPIRE program would have made it more difficult for welfare beneficiaries to duck out on required career development training.
The council rejected both measures mostly on party lines.
While Democrats cited LePage’s HHS audit in voting against the study group proposal, Speaker Eves said he opposed the bill changing work search program exceptions because it “assumes the worst in people.”
“I’m opposing this on its merits,” said Eves.
Fredette has said he developed the exception amendments in coordination with staffers at HHS who said many people exploit catch-all exception clauses in order to avoid engaging in programs the Department requires. He was unable to persuade his Democratic colleagues it was necessary.
“Democrats have left Maine’s finances in shambles with their insatiable appetite for welfare spending,” said Fredette. “They’ve made clear their intention to defend the welfare apparatus they’ve built up over the years.”
“Real change will have to come from the overwhelming majority of Mainers who are crying out for welfare reform,” he said. “Democrats have rejected every single welfare reform measure to come before them as they simply refuse to admit that Maine has a welfare problem. But Maine people are feeling taken advantage of and Democratic leaders are out of touch.”
Rep. Deb Sanderson (R-Chelsea), the top House Republican on the Legislature’s HHS Committee, was disappointed welfare reform will not get a chance to be fully vetted and discussed.
“At a time when needs are great yet resources are limited, to deny an opportunity for reasonable reforms which would protect the integrity of our system without decreasing benefits for eligible recipients can only be classified as irresponsible partisan politics,” she said.
The Alexander Group will deliver its review of Maine’s welfare programs to the LePage administration on May 15. The report has already become a lightning rod for Democrats and liberal newspaper editors looking to discredit the governor.
The campaign for LePage’s Democratic opponent in the 2014 governor’s race, U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud, has already attacked the decision to contract with The Alexander Group, saying the firm’s leader, Gary Alexander, is LePage’s “tea party” “crony” and that LePage is simply trying to enrich his “conservative allies.”
The administration declined to comment on Thursday whether the delivery date of the welfare audit means the governor will introduce welfare legislation of his own in the spring.
Maine Wire Reporter