A federal judge heard lengthy arguments Monday on a case filed by a Brunswick nonprofit trying to compel Gov. Paul LePage to release millions of dollars for job training and workforce development programs.

Coastal Counties Workforce Inc. contends LePage is illegally withholding money that the federal government has already earmarked for workforce development programs in southern and midcoast Maine. The attorney for Coastal Counties accused LePage of trying to “hold hostage” the federal funds and the program after failing to gain approval for sweeping administrative changes to the program.

“We have a history here … of multiple different ways the governor has tried to change the (program) to his liking,” Kelly McDonald argued in U.S. District Court in Portland.

But attorneys for the state of Maine said the LePage administration can include tougher job-training policies in contracts with the three nonprofits that administer federal workforce development funds statewide. And they disputed contentions that the current policy fight could have dire consequences for tens of thousands of Mainers seeking help finding jobs, career counseling or training.

“No one has been denied services at this point and no one has been denied funding at this point,” said Deputy Attorney General Susan Herman.

U.S. District Judge John A. Woodcock Jr. drilled into both sides’ arguments without giving any clear insights into when – or how – he might rule.

“You’re asking the federal court to issue equitable relief against a sitting governor by telling the governor what to do,” Woodcock said.

Monday’s bench trial before Woodcock is the latest development in a yearslong push by LePage to address what he says is wasteful spending in federal workforce programs.

There are currently three regional nonprofit agencies charged with administering federal funds that pay for job training, career counseling, skills assessment and job application services. Those agencies are overseen by a board of county commissioners, but the Maine Department of Labor has contracts with the agencies to distribute the federal funds.

LePage has failed to persuade first the Obama administration and, more recently, the Trump administration to allow him to eliminate the regional boards and consolidate all oversight in Augusta. Also, the state Department of Labor has tried to require the three regional agencies to devote at least 60 percent of federal funds to job training, which is nearly double the amount currently spent in that category.

On Dec. 1, the Maine State Workforce Board rejected imposing a 60 percent threshold for the current program year but agreed to set a goal of 45 percent beginning next year.

LePage’s push for a 60 percent threshold for job training sparked the current dispute over the release of federal funds.

Coastal Counties Workforce Inc. – which administers the programs in York, Cumberland, Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Knox and Waldo counties – reported about 46,700 “customer visits” last year and about 8,000 participants in its workforce programs.

In its court filings, Coastal Counties argues that federal law requires the LePage administration to release federal funds within 30 days of receiving them from the U.S. government. But the group says the LePage administration has yet to fully release funds for Program Year 2017, which began July 1, because the agency rejected a proposed contract that included what it said was the unfeasible 60 percent job training requirement.

“I thought the goal was unethical and, as a public steward, I wouldn’t be doing my job to sign this contract,” said Mike Bourret, executive director of Coastal Counties.

Bourret testified Monday that the agency has tapped into leftover 2016 funds but would have to close sometime next year without additional money. To meet the 60 percent job training goal, Coastal Counties would have to lay off the case managers or shutter offices. In turn, Coastal Counties would likely fail to fulfill its federal requirements to provide services beyond job training to clients who may be long-term unemployed or recent prison inmates or who struggle with substance abuse.

Testifying for the state, David Klein with the Maine Department of Labor’s Bureau of Employment Services said there is some duplication of services among the regional boards and a state-run workforce program. But he and Herman acknowledged that the $3.8 million earmarked for the state-run program would not be adequate to provide all of the services funded by the more than $8 million in federal workforce funds.

After the Trump administration rejected his request to consolidate the three regional boards into one, LePage asked the U.S. Department of Labor not to send any more money to the state. He also wrote Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta that “Maine is no longer participating” in the federal workforce program.

Woodcock noted that there is nothing to stop LePage from following through on that threat and refuse to accept any federal funds for the program year that begins July 1, 2018. McDonald agreed, but pointed out that Coastal Counties said the 2017 funding will help thousands of clients in the meantime.

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

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