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LePage: U.S. Labor letter misleading, improperly shared

Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Gov. Paul LePage
By Robert Long, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage on Friday sent an angry letter to U.S. Labor Commissioner Hilda Solis complaining that a letter addressed to him from Assistant Labor Secretary Jane Oates went to the executive director of a Local Workforce Investment Board before he received it.

The letter, dated Nov. 16, “acknowledges” Maine’s request to withdraw a plan to revamp workforce training oversight. However, Maine did not ask to withdraw its plan and request for a U.S. Department of Labor waiver, according to Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s press secretary. Instead, the state sought a formal rejection of its request so it would have grounds for an appeal.

“The governor made the decision to request a denial with the reasons for a denial so that the state could address the reasons and/or appeal,” Julie Rabinowitz, communications director for the Maine Department of Labor wrote in an email.

The governor received that denial on Nov. 27, Rabinowitz said.

In a separate three-page letter dated Nov. 14, Oates listed reasons why the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration chose to deny the state’s request to replace four regional workforce boards with a single statewide panel. The governor’s plan also would assign local and regional chambers of commerce to regularly call together businesses in their areas to hear from them about what they need from workers.

Oates’ Nov. 14 letter, provided to the Bangor Daily News by Ryan Pelletier, executive director of the Aroostook and Washington Counties Workforce Investment Board, lays out the federal agency’s objections to the state’s plan for a new way to oversee workforce training. The state submitted its plan on Sept.12. The letter cites “inconsistency about the extent to which state officials consulted chief local officials about the decision … The state should provide additional documentation that consultations occurred or consider restarting the consultation process.”

In a release issued Friday afternoon, the LePage administration accused the U.S. Department of Labor of “inappropriate backchannel communication” with the local workforce investment boards, “revealing the overreach of the federal government into state decision making.”

LePage expressed his displeasure with the situation Friday in a letter to Solis.

“I recently reviewed a copy of a letter from your Assistant Secretary Jane Oates addressed to me dated Nov. 16, 2012,” LePage wrote. “Unfortunately, that letter came to me from the Maine commissioner of labor, who received it second-hand from the executive director of a Local Workforce Investment Board. To date, I have not received this letter through official or unofficial channels between my office and yours and, in fact, Ms. Oates’ letter falsely assumes Maine’s course of action.”

LePage appointed the State Workforce Investment Board last December after learning that, in recent years, about 20 percent of federal job training funds for Maine was spent on actual job training while much of the remainder was spent on administration. He said a single, statewide board would offer closer oversight of the spending of those federal workforce dollars.

Members of the regional boards have argued that the current boards are better suited to meet specific worker training needs in the areas they serve. They also claimed they were not allowed adequate input into the formation of the revamping plan submitted to the U.S. Department of Labor.

The four regions for local workforce investment boards were formed in 1998 under the federal Workforce Investment Act. Before a new board could officially take on the responsibility of overseeing Maine’s workforce training programs, the LePage administration needs special permission from the U.S. Department of Labor, because federal law currently assigns that responsibility in Maine to the four regional workforce boards.

“It appears to me that either a significant error was made or your department is seeking to subvert the policy decisions of the state of Maine by working through back channels with Local Workforce Investment boards,” LePage wrote to Solis. “ I sincerely hope it is not the case that this was direct subversion — the states maintain a strong, independent and important role in our federal system.”

In the release, LePage accused the U.S. Department of Labor of being, “at best, disingenuous and, at worst, collaborated to conspire against the best interests of the people of Maine.”

Alleging a conflict of interest in his release, LePage said, “The U.S. Department of Labor and the local workforce investment boards have vested, although different, interests in maintaining the status quo to the extent possible. It is now obvious that they have been working together to deny the people of Maine the accountability they deserve and the flexibility we need to maximize job training dollars.”

Pelletier told the BDN he’s the executive director to whom LePage refers.

“ I can assure him that no one is in collusion with anyone,” Pelletier wrote in an email. “As I explained to the commissioner of labor [Friday] morning, I believe U.S. Department of Labor simply made a mistake and originally sent out a letter that had been drafted” [and sent out in error].

Regardless of whether the Nov. 16 letter went out in error, LePage believes the fact that it went to a leader of one of the local boards warrants investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor, Bennett said.

A call to the U.S. Department of Labor was not immediately returned.

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