When the Maine State Workforce Board voted somewhat unexpectedly last month to impose strict new requirements on how local job training groups could spend federal dollars, it was seen as a win for Gov. Paul LePage.

For years, Maine’s Republican governor has been trying to force the three regional boards to spend less on administration and more on skills training.

Fred Webber, longtime chair of the state board, bristled at the characterization that LePage won. He said Maine taxpayers should be seen as the winners because the program will be more efficient.

Representatives of those local boards, though, see it differently.

They said last month’s vote was little more than retribution by a governor who recently lost a federal lawsuit filed by one of the regional boards last year.

They also said the new requirements – which mandate that at least 70 percent of funds under the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act be spent on skills training – are unattainable and meant to ensure failure.

“There is no way any board is going to achieve that mark,” said Joanna Russell, executive director of the Northeastern Workforce Development Board, which manages the federal funding for job training services in Penobscot, Piscataquis, Hancock, Aroostook and Washington counties.

Antoinette Mancusi, deputy director of Brunswick-based Coastal Counties Inc, which oversees training for job seekers in York, Cumberland, Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Waldo and Knox counties, said the governor does not truly understand what the local boards do and has never tried to learn.

“You can’t take a sledgehammer and expect good performance,” she said.

The new requirements – which also come with strict penalties if not met, including dissolution by 2019 – will undergo a public comment period before they are sent to the U.S. Department of Labor by March 15 for final approval. Spokespersons for the federal labor department did not respond to emails or phone messages seeking comment.

Mancusi, whose agency successfully sued the LePage administration after the governor refused to release last year’s funds, said she’s not sure the changes will be approved.

“We’ll see whether it goes anywhere,” she said. “In the meantime, we’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing.”

CONSOLIDATION ISSUE

LePage has been trying for at least four 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 that share about $8 million in federal funding to oversee programs that provide job training, counseling and skills development to workers, while partnering with local businesses to connect them with employees. Those funds serve thousands of job seekers throughout the state.

The governor has tried to consolidate the state’s three regional workforce boards into a single agency, most recently last year.

The U.S. Department of Labor, however, has not supported that idea and last year the governor protested by refusing to release the funds. He even threatened to pull out of the federal program altogether.

In some years, the boards have spent as little as 20 percent on traditional job training.

Representatives of the boards, though, counter that individuals using their career centers often require counseling, educational assessment, skills development and other services that fall outside of LePage’s definition of job training.

The three regional boards say they devote roughly 10 percent to administration, and 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. LePage, however, characterizes anything not spent on worker training as administrative costs.

As pressure mounted on the Maine State Workforce Board, members met last December to debate a proposal to increase the minimum requirement for spending on job training.

At that meeting, members of the state workforce board debated at length about proposed changes and reached a compromise after a series of failed votes.

The boards would spend 45 percent of funds on skills training during the current fiscal year and 60 percent by 2018. And case management services would be included in that definition.

Russell, of the Northeastern board, said the December meeting was “the healthiest and most effective meeting I’ve ever attended. I believe the people who participated put their best foot forward; there was compromise.”

Sen. Amy Volk, a Republican from Scarborough who helped broker the compromise, felt the same way.

Less than two months later, though, the deal was scrapped.

Webber explained that he never considered the December vote set in stone.

“The governor was very unhappy,” he said. “He insisted that it be revisited.”

NEW BOARD MEMBERS

Things changed between the December meeting and the January meeting.

LePage lost the lawsuit in federal court, meaning he would have to release $3 million in funds to the local boards. He then lost a request to delay the release of those funds pending an appeal.

But he also got to appoint five new members ahead of the January meeting. Two seats were vacant and three other members dropped off because they either retired or were laid off from the jobs that enabled them to serve on the state board.

Although the board does not take roll call votes, the impact of those new members was clear, Volk said.

“The governor stacked the board with new members and got what he wanted,” she said. “It doesn’t surprise me. He went to court over this and lost. And he doesn’t like to lose.”

It’s also worth noting that LePage went to the January meeting himself, which was unusual. He made a new proposal that required boards to spend 70 percent of funds on skills training in fiscal year 2018 or they would lose 10 percent of funds. If a board didn’t reach 70 percent the next year, the governor could dissolve its contract with the state.

Rep. Ryan Fecteau, a Democrat from Biddeford who participated in last month’s meeting via phone, said he tried to table the item but was unsuccessful.

He said the governor and other board members reneged on a deal, plain and simple.

Volk said she worried that the new proposal might be too difficult for boards to reach.

“I think it’s going to be a major challenge for them,” she said.

VOTE CHANGED

Webber said even though workforce board members took a vote in December, he never considered the matter settled.

The December vote, 13-9, did not produce a strong consensus, he said. By comparison, the more recent vote of 17-3 was overwhelming, although he failed to point out that the board membership changed considerably.

Webber did agree that it will be a challenge for the local boards to meet the new requirements, but he said the governor is right to call for stricter requirements.

“I know they are upset,” he said. “But we’ll help them.”

Russell said no other state has a requirement above 50 percent. And the states that do have those requirements receive state funding in addition to their federal dollars. Maine contributes nothing.

For all of the governor’s criticism of how local boards spend their funds, Russell said she’d like to know what the state does with the 25 percent it “takes off the top.”

“They have never explained what they do with that,” she said.

Russell said she hasn’t had much time to think about the new requirements that could go into effect in July.

She is glad, though, that the court has ordered the 2017 funds released because many job seekers have been in limbo.

“Our population, our people, are at risk,” she said. “People coming out of prison or drug treatment. They need a lot of help. I’m proud of the work we do and none of that has been recognized.”

Volk, while disappointed, said she doesn’t plan to fight the latest decision. With a 17-3 vote, she’s not sure how much good it would do.

But she also said LePage is only in office for another year, so things could change.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PPHEricRussell

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