October 16, 2018
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After losing in court, LePage agrees to release millions in job training funds

Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Maine Gov. Paul LePage at the State House in Augusta on May 10, 2017.

Gov. Paul LePage’s administration has dropped a legal fight over its refusal to release more than $8 million in federal job training funds, allowing the funds to flow to three regional workforce boards in Maine that oversee local job training services.

The move allows the three workforce boards to start rebuilding programs they had to wind down as Maine’s Republican governor withheld federal funds the state receives each year through the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. Under WIOA, the funds are supposed to flow to the regional, business-led boards, which set job training priorities for their regions and contract with organizations that provide counseling and job search help to laid-off workers, low-income adults and struggling young adults. They also connect them with professional training programs, with WIOA funds paying the tuition.

“With the [program year 2017] funding that is now available to us, we are going to be rebuilding our service delivery system, which includes hiring the staff that we had to lay off,” said Antoinette Mancusi, deputy director of Coastal Counties Workforce Inc., which services York, Cumberland, Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Waldo and Knox counties.

Coastal Counties sued the LePage administration in October over the governor’s refusal to release the $8.4 million in federal funds to the three regional boards. The program year 2017 funding the administration is now releasing covers services from July 1, 2017, through June 30, 2018, said Kelly McDonald, the lawyer for Brunswick-based Coastal Counties. The workforce boards have until June 30, 2019, to spend them, McDonald said.

A spokeswoman for Maine Labor Commissioner John Butera, who was a co-defendant in the lawsuit with LePage, didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment.

In early January, a federal judge ordered the administration to release Coastal Counties’ portion of the federal workforce funds, about $3 million. But the LePage administration later appealed the ruling, and asked for a judge’s permission to continue withholding the money as the appeal proceeded.

Judge John Woodcock denied that request in January and ordered the administration to release the federal funds. On Thursday, LePage and Butera agreed to drop their appeal of that lawsuit to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, according to court records.

The LePage administration has also agreed to pay court costs in connection with its appeal of the Coastal Counties lawsuit.

“This has been a real cost, and I don’t know that there’s been any gain,” said Mancusi. “What has the state of Maine gained through all this?”

Joanna Russell, executive director of the Northeastern Workforce Development Board, said her organization received the held-up funds on Feb. 23 and has started developing contracts with organizations that provide services to job seekers in its service area, which covers Aroostook, Hancock, Penobscot, Piscataquis, and Washington counties.

Those organizations laid off staff when their funding didn’t come through, Russell said. Part of the challenge of rebuilding, she said, will be determining what happened to the laid-off workers and others who needed services.

“When staff were laid off, there’s nobody making phone calls, there’s nobody doing follow-up,” Russell said. “There’s nobody counseling or advising these individuals, who come from at-risk populations.”

The Central Western Maine Workforce Development Board, based in Lewiston, is the state’s other regional workforce training board. Its territory covers Androscoggin, Franklin, Oxford, Kennebec and Somerset counties.

LePage has long been a critic of the workforce board structure, and he has tried twice to replace the three local boards with one statewide board. His most recent attempt came on July 11, 2017. Both times, the federal government rejected his request because he didn’t work in collaboration with local decisionmakers, as required by federal law, the U.S. Department of Labor said.

Now, as the state renews its workforce development state plan with the federal government, the LePage administration wants to require the workforce development boards to spend 70 percent of the funding they receive directly on worker training, such as tuition for adult education classes and professional training programs.

That would deprive the workforce boards of the ability to pay for the infrastructure that supports job seekers, said Mancusi, including job counselors and caseworkers who connect laid-off workers with training programs.

“The governor has defined the category of training in a manner that suits his agenda,” Mancusi said. “It sounds great in sound bites, but when you play it out, the effect is truly detrimental to the WIOA program.”

Maine Focus writer Darren Fishell contributed to this report. Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to mainefocus@bangordailynews.com.

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