ELLSWORTH, Maine – Gov. Paul LePage on Thursday continued to call for more aggressive welfare reforms targeting what he called Maine’s overly generous benefit programs and said high energy costs and burdensome regulations continue to deter business growth in the state.
But the Republican governor said his administration already is seeing positive signs from recent changes to Maine’s health insurance regulations, changes he predicted will lower insurance costs and increase competition over time.
“Already we are speaking with insurance companies that are interested in coming back to Maine,” LePage said.
Speaking during a town hall meeting at Ellsworth Middle School, LePage offered the crowd a glimpse of what are likely to be some of the biggest issues in the legislative session that begins in January.
At or near the top of that list will be the growing budget shortfall — now estimated at $70.9 million — in the Department of Health and Human Services, the state agency that administers assistance programs for the poor, the disabled and the elderly.
Reiterating a claim heard from the administration last legislative session as well as on the 2010 campaign trail, LePage said Maine’s welfare benefits are too high compared with other states and need to be brought back in line with federal minimums.
As an example, LePage mentioned the fact that Maine allows families earning up to 200 percent of the poverty level to receive MaineCare benefits while the federal standard is 133 percent. The result, LePage said, is Maine allows “many, many more people to get onto welfare than all of the other states do.” LePage said.
“The problem is when you do that, people that don’t qualify in New Hampshire come to Maine, people that don’t qualify in Massachusetts come to Maine,” LePage said. “And my feeling is I would much rather help Maine people before I help the rest of the country.”
Lowering Maine’s threshold to 133 percent would result in an estimated 12,000 parents losing MaineCare benefits, a proposal that Republicans and Democrats on the Legislature’s budget-writing committee rejected earlier this year after emotional testimony.
Additionally, defenders of Maine’s social services programs consistently cast doubt on statements that non-Mainers move to the Pine Tree State for welfare, pointing out that assistance levels in Maine through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, or TANF, are the lowest in New England.
Lawmakers also killed a LePage administration proposal to require MaineCare recipients to undergo drug tests. But the governor continued Thursday to press for the drug tests, even when one audience member pointed out that such “warrentless drug tests” have been ruled unconstitutional by several courts.
“You can call it unconstitutional, but until the Supreme Court of the United States judges it, I say it is constitutional,” LePage said.
On the issue of energy, LePage said the state needs to do more to address the fact that Maine’s electricity costs are 42 percent above the national average. Without going into specifics, LePage said his administration is talking with power producers in Canada about tapping into their lower-cost energy and said he will continue to work to bring natural gas to more homes and business as an alternative to heating oil.
LePage said that one of the chief complaints he hears from business owners — in addition to Maine’s high energy costs — is that the state’s regulatory environment is too complex and unpredictable. If Maine wants to lure more businesses and keep them in the state, LePage said, it needs to become more business-friendly.
“That doesn’t mean destroying the regulations, the good regulations we have,” he said. “That means getting more friendly. That means having a better attitude when somebody comes to seek help in Augusta.”
LePage also talked about his plan to introduce legislation that would eliminate income taxes on retiree pensions as a way to encourage more “snowbirds” who summer in Maine but winter elsewhere to establish residency here. But while such a proposal likely will be popular politically in Augusta, it may be a difficult sell even in the Republican-controlled Legislature given the state’s budget situation.
Maine also needs to do a better job of preparing students for the jobs available in the state by in part re-emphasizing technical and career education, he said.