Gov. Paul LePage blamed “lenient” state welfare rules Friday for Maine’s failure to meet federal work participation requirements – something that could lead to a $10 million fine – and said he will submit a bill to fix the problem.
LePage said his bill would eliminate “good cause” exemptions from a requirement that recipients in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program work or actively look for jobs.
He said Maine allows TANF recipients to avoid the work requirement by obtaining exemptions for reasons that include inclement weather, an illness, a lack of transportation or some other “good cause.”
“Maine is overly generous in allowing a wide variety of exemptions from the work requirement, which are not recommended by the federal government, making it impossible to meet federal standards,” LePage said.
House Republicans immediately pledged to support the governor’s effort.
House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said Democrats would support “good-faith” improvements to anti-poverty programs, but warned that an across-the-board repeal of exemptions could lead to unintended consequences for recipients.
“We will carefully review the federal government’s assessment of our program and work with the governor to find real solutions,” Eves said in a prepared statement. “However, the governor’s so-called reforms of Maine’s TANF program have only led to increased homelessness in our state. We have concerns that this proposal to eliminate the ‘good cause’ provision in the law could be most harmful to women and children fleeing domestic violence abuse.”
Others said LePage’s proposal is an attempt to further restrict society’s safety net for the needy.
Sara Gagne Holmes, executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners, a nonprofit that provides legal help to the poor, said Maine was out of compliance with federal rules from 2007 to 2010 but has since come into compliance.
She said the state Department of Health and Human Services is working on a plan to make sure the state continues to meet the requirements. She noted that a law adopted in the last legislative session requires an assessment of families that go into the program, to determine the issues that might prevent parents from getting or keeping jobs.
For instance, she said, if a parent has a disabled child who needs frequent doctor’s appointments, the assessment could recommend work hours or flexibility to help that parent keep a job and still care for the child.
“Why is the governor making this crisis?” she said. “He’s trying to politicize the struggles of working families that need a little help.”
Rather than repeal the exemptions, she said, LePage should let the assessment program work and let the DHHS complete its compliance plan.
The governor’s proposal resembles one submitted in November by House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport. That proposal was rejected by the Legislative Council, the group that determines which bills will go through the legislative process.
Democrats have the majority in the Legislature and on the council, which spiked Fredette’s proposal with a party-line vote in December.
On Friday afternoon, the governor’s office released letters from the federal Department of Health and Human Services informing the state that it failed to meet work participation rules from 2007 to 2010, along with the state’s responses to those notifications.
In most cases, state officials blamed the lingering impact of the recession, an aging population and declining economic activity for welfare recipients’ failure to meet federal work requirements.
Only in the most recent response, from September, did the state mention the exemptions. In a proposed compliance plan, the state said it would seek to “clarify acceptable reasons for failure to comply with mandatory work requirements,” although it didn’t say it would propose eliminating the exemptions.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:
Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: