Gov. Paul LePage won a longstanding battle Friday when the Maine State Workforce Board supported his plan requiring regional workforce agencies to devote 70 percent of federal funds to job training or lose a portion of their funding.

The vote supersedes a compromise the board reached in December that set a goal of spending 45 percent on job training in 2018 and rising to 60 percent in 2019. The board, which is appointed by LePage, has several new members since the December meeting, said Antoinette Mancusi, an executive at one of the workforce development agencies who attended the meeting.

LePage, who presented his plan to the board in person, has been pressing for years to change what he contends is wasteful spending on administration of the state’s federally funded workforce development program. Maine has three regional boards contracted with the state to oversee programs that provide job training, counseling and skills development to workers, while partnering with local businesses to connect them with employees.

Board member Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, said the agencies will have to meet the 70 percent mark this fiscal year or they will lost 10 percent of their funding.

Fecteau, who attended the meeting via conference call, blasted the governor after Friday’s vote.

“(LePage) claims to be putting the best interest of the state above all else, but in reality he is undermining the fate of unemployed and displaced workers,” Fecteau said in an email. “His sound bites sound nice, but the harmful implications of his change will reverberate across the state.”

An official at one of the workforce agencies say it’s “ludicrous” to think they can meet the new standard set Friday.

“We can’t do what he’s requesting, whether it’s 60 percent or 70 percent,” said Mancusi, deputy director of Coastal Counties Workforce, which administers workforce development programs in Southern Maine on behalf of one of the regional boards. “Seventy percent is beyond impossible. It’s ludicrous.

“Our funders – the federal government – require us to spend on facilities, on staff workers, on assessment, on case management. (The LePage administration) is calling that administration. The truth is we spend 10 percent on administration, by law. That is what is allowed in our contract.”

A Labor Department spokeswoman who said she would provide further details about the meeting did not respond emails Friday night.

The three regional agencies generally split the remaining 90 percent in thirds between worker training, staffing such as case managers and counselors, and spending on leases, utilities, equipment or other infrastructure.

Critics say implementing a 70 percent threshold – which would be the highest in the nation – could destabilize a system that provides career counseling, job training and business services to tens of thousands of clients annually.

The federal funds in question, about $8 million a year, have been withheld by the LePage administration for more than six months, prompting Coastal Counties to sue for their release.

On Jan. 3, a federal judge ordered the LePage administration to release the funds.

“Gov. LePage and (Maine Labor) Commissioner (John) Butera are unhappy that the federal district court has not once, but twice ruled in our favor,” said Mancusi, who attended the meeting. “I am not surprised that they would seek out some form of retribution.”

Under pressure from LePage, the workforce development agencies have substantially increased the portion of federal funding spent on job training in recent years. But agency representatives say clients often need substantive skills assessment, counseling, remedial education and other services before they can maintain a job.

LePage has tried unsuccessfully to convince both the Obama and Trump administrations to allow him to consolidate the three agencies into one statewide agency based in Augusta, and he told President Trump’s Labor secretary that he “will not continue to participate in a system that wastes money.”

Friday’s vote will set off a long process of rewriting the state’s plan for spending the federal funds, which will ultimately need to go back to the U.S. Department of Labor for approval, Mancusi said.

Noel K. Gallagher can be reached at 791-6387 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: noelinmaine

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