In 2013, the governor decided not to apply for up to $37 million through the Race to the Top — Early Learning Challenge, a federal grant opportunity that would have allowed the state to make one-time improvements to its early childhood education system. Maine was essentially next in line for this grant money at the time LePage declined to apply.
In 2014, Gov. Paul LePage decided to prematurely end a federal arrangement that allowed low-income adults without children in Maine to qualify for food stamps — entirely paid for with federal funds — without fulfilling a work requirement. The result? $142 million less in food assistance for people in Maine, a state with rising rates of hunger and a growing dependence on food pantries.
In 2016, it was discovered that the LePage administration was sitting on $155.5 million in federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds. It simply hadn’t spent the money as the number of Maine people receiving TANF, which offers low-income families with children a minimal amount of cash assistance, declined more than 60 percent and more Maine children fell into deep poverty.
Throughout his tenure, it has been evident that LePage has an ideological aversion to federal funding. But until last week, no one had attached a figure to the magnitude of Maine’s rejection of federal funds.
The Maine Center for Economic Policy last week released a compendium of federal funding opportunities Maine has missed out on over the past six years. The organization estimated the combined value at $1.9 billion. In some cases, the federal funds were available, and the LePage administration ensured the money wouldn’t make its way to Maine. In others, the state refused to apply for federal grants — oftentimes after state staffers and outside collaborators had put substantial effort into planning programs and preparing applications.
LePage’s refusal to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act is easily responsible for the largest source of squandered funds. The Maine Center for Economic Policy estimated that decision alone was responsible for the loss of more than $1 billion that could have entered Maine’s economy, supported health care jobs and, most importantly, provided coverage for 75,000 low-income people with few — if any — affordable alternatives. It would have required an investment of state dollars, yes, but a number of other Republican governors determined the benefits far outweighed the costs, and states that previously resisted expansion are now seriously considering it.
The $1.9 billion isn’t just a figure that represents money that could have entered Maine and generated economic activity, especially in the state’s more economically depressed areas during a recovery that dragged on more than nine years. Each dollar also represents a missed opportunity.
An expanded Medicaid program, for example, could have paid for addiction treatment coverage just as Maine’s opioid epidemic was worsening. Instead, the state has recently been trying to catch up by setting aside small amounts of funding to treat people without insurance.
But Maine even passed up federal funds that could have paid for treatment for the uninsured. In 2015, Maine declined to apply for a federal grant that would have brought $3 million into the state to pay for medication-assisted addiction treatment. The federal government invited Maine to apply because of the state’s evident need.
Maine residents haven’t paid less in taxes because their state rejected so many federal funds. They’ve paid the same amount, and they’ve seen taxpayers in other states benefit.
The states that secured Race to the Top — Early Learning Challenge funds have been able to enroll hundreds of thousands more children in preschool. The states that expanded Medicaid have had a ready source of funding to pay for addiction treatment.
The LePage administration has explained at times that it rejected federal funding because it has an obligation to be a responsible steward of federal, in addition to state, money. And, certainly, not all federal funding opportunities are right for Maine.
But it’s also the state’s responsibility to be proactive in helping its population. And in too many instances, the LePage administration’s ideologically motivated rejection of federal funds has amounted to the state turning its back on its own people who could use the help.