AUGUSTA — House Speaker Mark Eves, a North Berwick Democrat, on Friday presented a proposal designed to ensure that welfare recipients are ready for the workforce.

The “ticket to work” proposal would direct administrators of the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to conduct or outsource screening assessments that ensure that benefit recipients are prepared for long-term employment.

The bill is one of several considered by the Legislature this year attempting to address employment barriers for those turning to public assistance. On Thursday, Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, introduced an “employment first” bill that directs state agencies to make sure disabled residents can find a job.

Eves’ bill is a retooled version of one he sponsored in 2011. That proposal gained widespread support before the Department of Health and Human Services estimated it would cost $1 million, a price tag that ultimately prompted the Republican-led Legislature to reject it.

The new proposal, L.D. 1343, now has the backing of the LePage administration. Beth Hamm, the director of policy and programs at the Office of Family Independence, told lawmakers Friday that Eves’ bill dovetails with efforts already undertaken by several state agencies to ensure TANF recipients are prepared for employment.

The state already has a program to get welfare recipients into the workforce. Most parents who receive welfare benefits are required to participate in Additional Support for People in Retraining and Employment, or ASPIRE. The program helps welfare recipients with job placement, but Eves said Friday that ASPIRE agents aren’t trained to identify learning disabilities or mental health issues.

Dale Denno, director of the DHHS Office for Family Independence, told MaineToday Media in January that most TANF recipients are immediately enrolled in the support program and meet every six months with one of the program’s 53 specialists.

Denno acknowledged that the program needs strengthening, adding that identifying skills and job placement are labor intensive.

“Right now we’re asking the same person to do too many tasks,” he said. “We’re running (the ASPIRE specialists) ragged.”

He highlighted the collaboration by the DHHS and the Labor and Education departments that the LePage administration has been pushing.

It’s not clear if the LePage administration’s current efforts will reduce the cost of Eves’ proposal, which requires that agencies screen applicants for learning disabilities or mental health issues.

Hamm told lawmakers Friday that her department may outsource some vocational assessment services.

Eves’ similar proposal in 2011, L.D. 1001, passed unanimously in the House and the Senate, but sputtered after it was assigned a two-year cost of $970,000 by the Legislature’s fiscal review office. The costs were based largely on 14 new positions.

DHHS officials told the Press Herald in January that interagency collaboration could mitigate the need for additional staffing.

Eves said job screening assessments were more important since Gov. Paul LePage enacted a provision that limits Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to 60 months. The limit was implemented in June 2012. A University of Maine study commissioned by Maine Equal Justice Partners said the limit had resulted in 1,500 families, including approximately 2,700 children, losing assistance.

The study found that 39 percent of those losing benefits reported a work-limiting disability and more than 40 percent of those who lost benefits had less than a high school education.

The median income of families losing assistance was $3,120, or about 16 percent of the federal poverty level.

Eves described his bill as a pathway out of poverty.

“The best way to move people out of poverty is to provide them with the skills and tools they need to secure a good job,” He said. “I strongly believe this is an area where Democrats and Gov. LePage should be able to find common ground.”

The federal program is funded by tax revenues and designed to provide aged, blind or disabled people with basic living needs, such as food, clothing and housing.

More than 36,250 people received Supplemental Security in 2011, according to the U.S. Social Security Administration. The number of recipients has risen over the last nine years. In 2002, there were more than 30,900 recipients. Most recipients have been classified as disabled.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @stevemistler

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