AUGUSTA, Maine — Independent candidate for governor Eliot Cutler joined the campaign debate on welfare reform Wednesday with a plan that calls for public assistance recipients to repay some of the benefits they receive and for the state to provide cash incentives for recipients who complete their high school education or ensure the educational success of their children.
Welfare reform is a hot issue in the gubernatorial campaign, much as it was during this year’s legislative session, due in no small part to Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s hammering of the issue since last fall.
Cutler, who along with Democrat Mike Michaud is vying to unseat LePage, said Wednesday that changes to the state’s welfare system should be a priority for anyone running for the state’s highest elected office.
“It ought to be there for people who need it,” said Cutler of programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and food vouchers. “It ought to be limited in terms of the time people are in it and there needs to be a bridge out of it and into the workforce.”
That statement follows LePage’s ideology on the issue very closely, though Cutler said the difference is that his focus is on providing opportunities for the vast majority of welfare recipients who are striving to leave public assistance behind and less on what he called LePage’s “demonizing” of the poor.
Many of LePage’s proposals — some of which have been implemented and some of which were turned away by the Democrat-led 126th Legislature — are focused more on eliminating fraud and abuse than the larger goal of transitioning welfare recipients to independence..
“The key is going beyond the fraud and abuse to breaking the cycle of dependency and moving people out of poverty and into self-sufficiency,” Cutler told the BDN.
Cutler’s proposals include implementing “smart cards” in place of the state’s current EBT card system, which is the debit card-like program through which the state administers benefits. Cutler said the cards could be programmed not to work for certain products and could limit how much cash can be withdrawn in a month.
He also advocates implementing a system of gradually reducing benefits such as housing and child care subsidies as recipients join the workforce, which he said would eliminate the “cliff” of losing all benefits at once. A similar proposal failed in the most recent Legislature.
Versions of those proposals have been proposed at the State House in recent years. Among Cutler’s proposals, however, are some new ideas such as increasing the earned income tax credit for people who obtain a high school diploma. Cutler estimates that this provision could benefit a single parent with two children about $540 at tax filing time.
Cutler also supports expanding Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act — which Michaud agrees with and LePage opposes — a “Giving Back to ME” program, under which people who receive social service benefits for 18 months or more, and whose income eventually reaches three times the federal poverty limit, would be required to pay a portion of their taxable income into a fund that would expand access to early childhood education programs.
Cutler’s political opponents pointed out accurately that many of his proposals echo LePage’s.
“We welcome Eliot’s support of the governor’s record of reforming welfare, a stark contrast to the position of … Michaud, who doesn’t even recognize a need for welfare reform,” LePage campaign spokesman Alex Willette said in a written statement.
In June, Michaud unveiled welfare reform proposals that included the creation of a state-level Office of Inspector General to oversee and police operations in the Department of Health and Human Services and investigate fraud and abuse by recipients. Michaud’s position is that management problems in DHHS are costing the state far more than what he perceives to be a small number of people who abuse the state’s public assistance programs and that problems have to be solved beginning at the administrative level. He told the BDN at the time that he would roll out more welfare reform proposals later in the campaign.
Michaud policy adviser David Farmer said in a written statement Wednesday that Cutler’s plan “brings nothing new to the conversation” and said Cutler and LePage were spouting “empty rhetoric without real solutions.”
“Gov. Paul LePage has failed to fix welfare and the Department of Health and Human Services is broken,” said Farmer. “Congressman Michaud is the only candidate in the race who can bring Democrats, Republicans and independents together for the change we need. He has an aggressive plan to eliminate waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement at all levels while ensuring that low-income families get the support they need to work their way into the middle class.”
One danger of limiting the benefits in any social services program is that eventually some of the state’s most needy people could have nowhere to turn, and Cutler agreed that there is a percentage of people who wouldn’t take advantage of the incentives to train themselves for the workforce.
“I believe that 80 percent, and probably more, of the people now in the welfare system don’t want to be there,” Cutler said. “I want to start by focusing on those 80 percent and figuring out how to move them into the workforce and out of poverty. … If we focus too much time and attention on the other 20 percent, we ignore the big picture.”