October 23, 2018
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LePage administration should stop blocking job training funds

Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
The State House is surrounded by fall foliage Monday, Oct. 23, 2017, in Augusta, Maine.

It has surpassed ridiculous that Gov. Paul LePage has continued to block $8.4 million from flowing to services for the unemployed this year. There is simply no reason for the LePage administration to keep preventing the federal funding from going to Maine’s three regional workforce development boards, which distribute the money meant to help laid-off workers and adults in poverty find work.

The administration is destroying a system that uses no state money. It is putting career counselors out of work. And it’s ending services for those the governor purports to want to protect. In addition, in a strange twist that left those at the local level scratching their heads, it appears the administration even understands that the law requires it to pass on the money to the workforce development boards — but is still refusing to do so.

Here’s what happened. Coastal Counties Workforce Inc. in Brunswick, which oversees the funds for job training in southern and coastal Maine, sued the administration on Oct. 24 to compel LePage and Maine Department of Labor Commissioner John Butera to end the blockade and provide it with the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) funding. But the two parties took some time to see if they could reach an agreement outside the court to settle on the terms of a contract.

They couldn’t. In negotiations the administration would not budge on its desire to see 60 percent of the federal funding to the boards go to direct services for the unemployed, such as tuition for training programs. It would be great if that much money could support job seekers, but it’s simply not realistic. The local boards are required by federal law to cover a number of expenses to receive the money in the first place, and meeting all those requirements wouldn’t allow them to meet the 60-percent threshold — unless the state wanted to kick in some of its own money.

For instance, the boards have to cover the salaries of counselors at career centers who determine what type of job training will be suitable to clients. They have to pay for rent, so career counselors have offices in which to work. Without the basic infrastructure, there is no way to connect people with job training. Requiring the local boards to put 60 percent of the money toward just training would be a poison pill. Unable to operate, the services LePage is supposedly fighting for would disappear.

Now, the matter will proceed in court.

But here’s where it gets interesting. During negotiations over the potential contract, the Maine Department of Labor prepared and posted online for public viewing a standard form, as it’s required to do, that precedes all potential contracts that aren’t the result of competitive bidding. It posted three requests for sole-source contracts to distribute the federal WIOA funding to Coastal Counties, the Northeastern Workforce Development Board in Bangor and Central Western Maine Workforce Initiatives in Lewiston.

As part of the typical process, the department had to state why the services could only be provided by those entities, as opposed to allowing others to submit competitive bids to provide them. The department’s reasoning is priceless: “[T]he Governor is required to disburse these funds according to Federal law and to designate LAs [local workforce areas] as recipients of these funds,” one section states.

The forms, signed by Commissioner Butera Nov. 1, repeat themselves several times. For instance, they read again, “[T]hese funds are required by law to be awarded to Local Areas defined under WIOA, as such the MDOL/BES acts as the ‘pass through’ entity and the LA acts as the subrecipient of these funds.” (BES is the Bureau of Employment Services.)

Apparently the administration knows, and has acknowledged publicly, that it should be sending on the federal funding to the local boards.

It should stop its charade, put an end to a needless lawsuit, and do what it appears to know to be correct: Let these funds go to the people who need them.

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