EDITORIALS

Tax dollars are paying Gary Alexander to recommend cutting aid to Maine’s poorest

Gary Alexander (from left) and Eric Randolph of Rhode Island-based Alexander Group and Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew prepare Jan. 14 to answer questions from the Health and Human Services Committee in Augusta.
Mario Moretto | BDN
Gary Alexander (from left) and Eric Randolph of Rhode Island-based Alexander Group and Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew prepare Jan. 14 to answer questions from the Health and Human Services Committee in Augusta. Buy Photo
Posted May 23, 2014, at 10:02 a.m.
Last modified May 23, 2014, at 4:22 p.m.

On Friday afternoon, Gov. Paul LePage announced he would suspend all payments to the Alexander Group, which was selected through a no-bid contract to present recommendations for the state’s public assistance programs. LePage said he would also “take further action, including termination of the contract, if warranted,” two days after a BDN editorial showed parts of consultant Gary Alexander’s work was lifted word for word from other professional reports.

We have argued against the policy recommendations in the Alexander reports and their blatant plagiarism, and we think it’s past time for the LePage administration to cancel the contract. The governor has taken the right step in suspending payment, but it’s clear he also has grounds to end the deal entirely.

If he or Maine residents need another reason to discredit the Alexander Group’s work, they can look no further than the consulting firm’s recommendations for “reforming” the municipal-state General Assistance program.

The recently released second installment of the group’s five-part analysis of Maine government assistance programs suggests several ideas for cutting costs within the statewide General Assistance system. General Assistance is an option of last resort for people in emergency situations often facing destitution or homelessness; it’s administered by municipalities, and it’s paid for jointly by municipalities and the state.

People must apply for the aid — such as for food, medication prescriptions or housing — and the payment is made directly to the vendor. Many municipalities require people to work, often doing odd jobs for the town or city, in order to receive the assistance.

Because General Assistance is reserved for people in dire circumstances who may not qualify for other aid, it is irresponsible to lightly suggest eliminating it, without any discussion about alternative approaches or the effects on Maine people and its economy. But that is what the Alexander Group does. It suggests several “options,” as the report puts them, for cutting costs. One is to “eliminate the GA program altogether.”

We don’t think Gov. Paul LePage needed to pay the Alexander Group $925,000 to suggest ideas like that. Need to cut costs in a certain program? Well, just get rid of it!

Never mind what would happen to Maine’s neediest or how long-term costs would transfer to municipalities. Don’t think too hard about the fact that consultant Gary Alexander is being paid with Maine tax dollars and federal funds to recommend an idea that required no creativity or skill and would take assistance away from Maine residents.

The report suggests other “options” as well, several of which were proposed by the LePage administration in the past but didn’t gain support. One would turn General Assistance into a block grant where the state would allocate a specific amount of money to municipalities based on their previous spending. Once the towns spent the grant, they would be ineligible for more state money. So, basically, Maine residents would want to have their emergencies early in the year, before their town ran out of funds.

Another option: Cap enrollment. That way, “caseloads will decline overtime [sic] due to attrition, and savings can be realized through this limit on receipt of benefits,” according to the report. Aside from the fact that no one “enrolls” in General Assistance, how many people does Alexander think should receive emergency assistance each year? In 2013, 12,486 people were served, with an estimated average cost per case of $966, according to the report. Which people should not have been helped?

The report’s “options” don’t build on previous work in Maine or prompt helpful or productive debate about realistic ways for the General Assistance program to improve.

For instance, Bath, West Bath and Brunswick combined their administration of General Assistance, prompting some savings. How many other towns and small cities could save money through regionalizing the service, and how much? The Alexander Group could have been helpful by offering some answers.

If the LePage administration wanted its money’s worth with this report, it would have asked for a legitimate and specific cost-benefit analysis. It doesn’t need a summary of the myriad ways to cut or eliminate the program. Even if LePage needed help thinking up ways to slash spending, there are plenty of examples in other states. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington, D.C., research organization, described the cuts made by other states in a 2011 report, which Alexander also references and, as we pointed out this week, lifted direct text from.

What a waste.

 

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