AUGUSTA — Democratic and Republican lawmakers agreed Thursday that Maine should fix the so-called “welfare cliff,” but divided along party lines on how to address policies that discourage some recipients from entering the workforce.

During a legislative session marked with partisan differences over welfare, the “welfare cliff” seemed like one area where lawmakers from both parties and Republican Gov. Paul LePage could work together. The LePage administration and a Democratic lawmaker both introduced bills aimed at eliminating policies that discourage some Mainers from working or accepting better-paying jobs for fear of abruptly losing welfare benefits.

Currently, a single parent with two children loses $174 in monthly benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program once the parent earns $1 more than the cutoff of $1,023 per month, or $12,276 per year. At that income level, the family is still below the federal poverty level.

Despite initial optimism, however, members of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee voted 6-5 along party lines on how far to go in eliminating the cliff for part time workers.

“I could care less whether it’s the governor’s bill or my bill,” said Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, the author of one of the two bills pending with the committee. “I think this is an area where we are going to be very disappointed if we can’t come to an agreement.”

Gattine had pushed to provide an exemption – officially called an “income disregard” – for 100 percent of a full-time worker’s gross income for the first two months of employment in order to help the recipient transition into the workforce. The exemption would decrease after the second month.

LePage’s bill, L.D. 1402, also would provide an exemption for 100 percent of a full-time worker’s income for the first two months of employment, followed by lesser amounts. But under the governor’s bill, Mainers who work fewer than 20 hours a week would not be eligible for any exemptions.

Gattine argued that LePage’s policy would correct one part of the “welfare cliff,” but create an even steeper drop-off for those unable to initially work at least 20 hours a week.

He and the committee’s five other Democrats amended LePage’s bill to insert the more graduated payment system for part-time workers.

Rep. Deb Sanderson, a Chelsea Republican, argued that the governor’s bill would bring Maine into compliance with the current federal policies for TANF.

With such a closely divided committee vote, the bill will likely be the topic of considerable debate in the Democratic-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate.

Kevin Miller can be reached at 791-6312 or at:

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