House Speaker Sara Gideon is urging Gov. Paul LePage to reconsider his decision to reject about $8 million in federal workforce development funds intended to help unemployed Mainers gain new skills and jobs.

Gideon, a Democrat from Freeport, said in a statement Monday that the funding from the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act helps low-income adults, laid-off workers and struggling youth. The federal funding currently flows to workforce development boards in Brunswick, Lewiston and Bangor that serve a total of roughly 2,200 people.

The LePage administration said the characterization that the governor rejected the funding was “categorically untrue.”

“Reducing the size and scope of government and aiming to get more resources directly to Mainers has always been Governor LePage’s goal,” Laura Hudson, director of communications for the Maine Department of Labor, said in a statement. “He has not ‘rejected’ the $8 million in Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) funds.

“He has opted that the state will not add an additional layer of overhead that takes money out of occupational training. We will work with the U.S. Department of Labor to identify the manner in which the federal government can continue to provide this job training funding to Maine with only one layer of administrative costs.”

The disagreement over the funding appears to stem from the Republican governor’s desire to consolidate the workforce boards under one statewide agency.

In a July letter, LePage had asked the Trump administration to allow the state to use the funding to create one unified workforce development system. He argued that under federal rules and law, the money disproportionately flows to densely populated areas even though Maine’s workforce development issues are more pressing in rural parts of the state.

“Flexibility is needed to respond to our economic and workforce challenges,” LePage wrote in the letter. “The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act’s grandfathering of an antiquated structure have made it exceptionally difficult to respond to the specific needs of our state.”

Michael Bourret, the executive director of Coastal Counties Workforce, Inc. in Brunswick, said leaders of the three workforce boards that receive funding in Maine were told last week by the U.S. Department of Labor that the state would no longer accept the federal money after Labor Secretary R. Alexander Acosta denied the governor’s request. Coastal Counties Workforce, Inc. serves people in York, Cumberland, Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Waldo and Knox counties.

Bourret said Monday that LePage has been trying since 2012 to consolidate the workforce boards into one statewide agency based in Augusta, but that he was rejected twice by the administration of former President Obama and now by the Trump administration.

In the statement, the Maine Department of Labor blamed the Obama administration for blocking LePage’s efforts to consolidate the workforce boards.

“Several of the governor’s initiatives have resulted in more money going into training; however, the Obama administration blocked efforts at significant reform,” the statement said. “The governor’s decision will achieve his objective of getting more resources into the hands of Mainers in need of training and workforce development. We are awaiting next steps from USDOL.”

Bourret said the three workforce boards in Maine help a total of about 2,200 workers each year. Those workers range from veterans to immigrants to the low-income or displaced workers who have lost jobs through no fault of their own and need new skills.

He also said that the boards use the federal funding to draw down additional grants and other support that compounds the value and the reach of that funding. Less than 8 percent of the federal funding they receive goes toward administration or overhead costs, while about 25 percent of the federal funding the state receives for workforce development goes to administrative costs, Bourret said.

Bourret also said the model of regional workforce development boards is one that has been in place since the administration of President Reagan and has been well supported by Congress as an effective public-private partnership that connects workers with employers and helps get workers the skills they need for those employers. No other state has just a single or centrally located workforce agency, Bourret said. “There are about 500 workforce development boards around the country, not just 50,” he said.

“He didn’t get his way and he’s angry about that,” Bourret said of LePage. “So he is going to pull the money and not take the money and basically eliminate the system that we have.”

Bourret said he also had confirmed with the U.S. Department of Labor that LePage was asking to reject the federal funds.

Bourett said those who work for the workforce boards will “land on our feet one way or another, but what I’m concerned about is the workers and the job-seekers and the employers,” he said. “Take us out of the equation and the cry for workforce skills becomes even louder.”

According to Gideon’s statement, the loss of funding would affect thousands of Mainers utilizing local career centers for employment counseling, job training and education, on-the-job training and work experience services.

“We all agree the best pathway out of poverty is a good-paying job,” Gideon said in the statement. “The decision to forfeit these dollars is reckless and harmful to Maine’s people and Maine’s economy. I urge Gov. LePage and his administration to reconsider their decision.”

Katie Mae Simpson, executive director of the Maine Democratic Party, also took aim at LePage.

“Paul LePage likes to claim that he is a champion for working class Maine people, but his words are nothing more than empty rhetoric,” Simpson said in a statement Monday. “His rejection of these crucial federal funds for job training programs once again shows that Paul LePage puts ideology ahead of the needs of Maine people.”

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

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