The LePage administration has made significant progress overhauling welfare in Maine, but significant changes are still needed to reform a system that ranks Maine fifth in per-capita spending on public assistance programs.

That’s the overriding message in a 228-page analysis of Maine’s public welfare system that was released Thursday by The Alexander Group, a Rhode Island-based consulting firm that the LePage administration is paying $925,000.

The widely anticipated and contentious analysis follows several months of partisan bickering and missed deadlines for Gary Alexander, a former public welfare director in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.

Critics have cast Alexander as an ideologue and characterized his work as a political product designed to validate Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s welfare policies, many of which have been rejected by the Democrat-controlled Legislature.

The study highlights and applauds many of the changes the LePage administration has made in the state’s public assistance programs. Several of its recommendations are identical to proposals the governor introduced during the legislative session, only to see most of them defeated by Democrats.

The report focuses heavily on Maine’s Medicaid program, MaineCare, which accounts for $2.6 billion of the Department of Health and Human Services’ $3.3 billion budget.

One of the leading items in the study is a recommendation that the DHHS apply for a so-called global waiver for MaineCare. The study concludes that the waiver would give Maine greater flexibility to administer a complex program that provides health care services to low-income Mainers. More than 74 percent of the state’s current Medicaid recipients are children and families.

According to Alexander, a global waiver is the only way to contain the program’s costs. MaineCare now accounts for 17 percent of state spending. Alexander predicted that, without a global waiver, MaineCare’s share of the general fund will grow to 36.2 percent by 2023.

Other recommendations of the study include:

Applying for a 10-state pilot program created in the 2014 federal Farm Bill. The program encourages states to create work-training programs within their respective food stamp programs.

Joining at least 19 other states in adopting an upfront work-search requirement for cash assistance through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Recipients now must prove that they’re looking for work after they receive cash benefits. This spring, the Legislature rejected a proposal by the LePage administration to require applicants to show they have applied for three jobs before they receive assistance.

Directing payments to child care providers, to improve program integrity. The state now loads child care payments onto recipients’ electronic benefit cards.

Cutting the state reimbursement to municipalities for General Assistance from 90 percent to 50 percent and providing a block grant to create uniformity. Alexander also says the DHHS could take over administration of the program.

DEMOCRATS REJECT DOCUMENT

In prepared statements Thursday, the Democratic co-chairs of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee slammed the report as a “deeply flawed” analysis designed to reinforce LePage’s re-election campaign messages.

“This is nothing more than a political document. It’s a continued waste of taxpayer dollars meant to bolster the governor’s election-year rhetoric,” said Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland. “We need a governor who is focused on jobs and economic opportunity for everyone, if we are truly going to address poverty in Maine. Breaking the cycle of poverty means growing jobs, increasing access to job training, health care, and making work pay.”

Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, said Maine taxpayers should be outraged that the administration used public money “to buy tea party talking points, not solutions.”

Alexander’s report says reforms are needed to rein in a complex and costly system that puts Maine fifth among states in per-capita spending on public assistance programs. It’s unclear whether Alexander counted the state’s $13 million in spending for General Assistance in his analysis. Thirty states have General Assistance programs, including all five of the top per-capita spenders highlighted in his study.

Alexander said the cost of the entire welfare system is dominating state budgets while squeezing out assistance for the truly needy, a finding that mirrors public statements by LePage administration officials.

REPORT ISSUED WITHOUT FANFARE

The report has been eagerly awaited and marked by early controversy.

In January, Alexander issued a study of Medicaid expansion that was widely criticized by Democrats in the Legislature as a political document designed to bolster LePage’s welfare policies, rather than provide an independent analysis. Critics have pointed out that Alexander was hired without a competitive bidding process.

Unlike the Medicaid expansion study, the broader report published Thursday was a low-key release. Neither LePage’s office nor the DHHS issued any media statements with the study.

In January, while several Medicaid expansion bills were pending before the Legislature, the administration held a heavily attended news conference to publicize Alexander’s findings on expansion costs.

Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s spokeswoman, said the newly released report is an “objective and comprehensive analysis” that the administration continues to review.

“The long-term goal is to improve the delivery of welfare in our state to our most vulnerable citizens, and the report is a road map for those improvements,” she said.

The DHHS did not respond to requests for an interview with Commissioner Mary Mayhew.

WELFARE ISSUES A FOCUS IN ELECTION

Welfare spending and abuse are expected to play a prominent role in this year’s gubernatorial and legislative campaigns.

LePage has repeatedly hammered the issue in public statements and policy proposals, blaming “liberals” in the Legislature for fostering an unsustainable welfare state. Democrats have countered that the governor’s proposals are heavy on rhetoric and based on vilifying the poor.

The state has paid Alexander $500,000 so far, but the consultant missed a series of deadlines outlined in the contract. The administration has defended Alexander’s work and said the deadlines were actually “target dates.”

Bennett said the report released Thursday includes three of the studies that were due earlier this year. She said the administration has granted Alexander an extension for the remaining studies.

Bennett said there are no additional costs associated with the extension.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com

Twitter: @stevemistler