AUGUSTA, Maine — Rep. Kenneth Fredette, the Maine House Republican leader, on Wednesday introduced two bills meant to reform one of the state’s key welfare programs for families with children.
Welfare reform has been top talking points for Republicans in recent months. Fredette, the Newport representative serving his second term in the Maine House, said his two bills were a “common-sense” reform package, while one top Democrat said the proposals vilify struggling families to “score political points.”
The bills target Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a program the provides a cash benefit to families with dependent children.
Fredette’s first bill would require job-ready TANF applicants to submit documentation proving they had already applied for at least three jobs before seeking cash assistance through the program. This so-called “up-front” requirement is in place in 19 other states, ranging from conservative Georgia to liberal Vermont.
The second would eliminate discretion by DHHS caseworkers in deciding whether to penalize beneficiaries for failing to participate in an education, training and work program required for TANF recipients. That program is called ASPIRE, which stands for Additional Support for People in Retraining and Employment.
Under current law, recipients may be excused from participating under specific extenuating circumstances — such as illness or the responsibility to care for children younger than 6 years old — or for “good cause” as determined by a caseworker. Fredette’s second bill would eliminate that decision-making power, so only exceptions explicitly specified in the law would be valid.
Each bill has been submitted to the Revisor’s Office, where complete legislative language will be drafted in time for the next legislative session, which begins in January.
In a meeting with reporters, Fredette called the reforms “common-sense,” and said they were about creating accountability.
“These requirements do not take benefits away,” he said. “They only add the requirement that [beneficiaries] be out looking for a job at the same time.”
He also said the “good cause” clause is an “exception that swallows the rule.”
“If there are legitimate reasons [for not participating in the jobs, training and education program], we should be able to recognize them and codify them into Maine statute,” he said.
Rep. Kathleen Chase, R-Wells, who joined Fredette at the meeting, said eliminating the “good cause” clause would also remove unpredictability from the system. One caseworker may accept a certain excuse from a TANF recipient while another one would not, she said.
“Taxpayers understand the need for compassion, but they also have expectations that the money would be well spent and the expectation that people who are temporarily getting assistance are working their way out of that by looking for jobs,” Chase said.
For either bill to get traction, Republicans — who are the minority party in both chambers of the Legislature — will need Democrats to sign on. If statements and interviews Wednesday with select Democrats are any indication, that will be no easy task.
“It’s easy for politicians to vilify families like these that are struggling to get on their feet again simply to score political points,” said House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick. “That’s all these bills are and I won’t be supporting them.”
Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, is chairwoman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. She said Fredette’s bills serve only to make it harder for struggling Mainers to get the assistance they need.
Craven said the program already requires recipients to participate in an education, training and work program for at least 20 hours per week while they receive benefits, and that requiring applicants to have already applied for work is an unnecessary hurdle.
“If you are in a domestic-violence situation, and you have been beaten up and you’re at a shelter, you may not have the capacity [to apply for jobs],” she said. “You may have anxiety, you may not have a place to live or clothes to wear. This is the entry point for a lot of people who get TANF. … We can’t say they need to be ready right away.”
In August, the most recent month for which data is available, more than 8,400 Maine families received TANF for a total of about $3.2 million in benefits. That number includes more than 13,000 children.
The Legislative Council, which is made up of the six Democratic and four Republican legislative leaders, must approve any new bills for the next legislative session in January. The council meets next on Oct. 30.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.