AUGUSTA, Maine — House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, introduced a new bill Monday that would expand and enhance Maine’s social services safety net, largely funded with what Gideon said is $150 million in federal funds that Gov. Paul LePage’s administration isn’t spending.
Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew said the proposal would drain federal resources and trap Mainers in poverty.
Among the elements of Gideon’s wide-ranging bill are requirements for the state to use federal grants to expand access to child care; establish a housing voucher program for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families recipients and families whose housing costs exceed 50 percent of their income; increase the maximum TANF benefit to the average of nearby states; and create the Addiction Prevention and Family Stabilization Program. The bill also proposes pilot programs to provide low-income families with transportation, install high-efficiency heating systems and create a reserve fund to cover learn years when not enough TANF funding is available.
A 2016 analysis by the Legislature’s Office of Fiscal and Program Review found that about $155 million in unspent TANF funding had accrued by the end of fiscal year 2016. DHHS and LePage’s office ignored questions from the Bangor Daily News on this point, though it said in a news release that a small percentage of the funds had been rerouted to other programs.
Contrary to Mayhew’s assertions, Gideon said the intent of the bill is providing expanded services to low-income families but also helping them make a gradual transition from taxpayer-funded services to independence as their income increased above the thresholds for social service programs. This concept is known as the “welfare cliff.”
“This bill provides the opportunity to keep people in successful and sustainable employment,” said Gideon.
Gideon cited the American Community Survey when she said the number of Maine children living in deep poverty — less than $10,000 per year for a family of three — is increasing eight times faster than the national average.
“We’ve seen the positive outcomes of these reforms and how they are helping strengthen Maine’s economy by putting people back to work,” said Mayhew in a written statement. “We cannot ignore this and we cannot allow this success to be overturned.”
Gideon said during a Monday news conference at the State House that her motivation for the bill was primarily to help children dig out of familial cycles of poverty that unchecked can last generations.
“Their future was already being proscribed by their present and the poverty they were living in,” said Gideon. “For me, those kids were my personal reason and call for doing something. … The very idea of any child experiencing the sort of insecurity, instability, anxiety and hunger that comes with poverty is just unacceptable to anybody.”
Gideon said the program, as well as its pilot elements, could be covered by existing federal resources, but she acknowledged that it could affect future state budgets after the pilot periods expire.
The bill already has some bipartisan support, including four Republican lawmakers from northern and eastern Maine.
Supporters are sure to receive intense pushback. Social service cutbacks — through rulemaking and laws that have tightened eligibility and established limits on benefits — have been a priority for LePage and most legislative Republicans. One example of that is LePage’s pending proposal to reduce the lifetime limit on collecting TANF funds from five years to three years.
Gideon’s proposal is a component of Democrats’ push this year to blunt LePage’s latest round of proposed public assistance cuts and changes in a year when state revenues exceed expenses. Supporting low-earning Mainers — particularly children — is at the core of the Democrats’ Opportunity Agenda, a set of goals designed to counter many of the elements of LePage’s biennial state budget proposal.
While tightening eligibility requirements and limiting spending on public assistance programs has been a Republican focus in recent legislatures, they have another priority this year. Republicans are intent on repealing the 3 percent surtax on income above $200,000, which was enacted by voters last year to support public schools.
However, Democratic leaders have made it clear they will go to the mat fighting those changes. Meanwhile, Democrats have taken a page from the LePage playbook by holding town hall meetings all over Maine in recent weeks touting their Opportunity Agenda.
With the release of Gideon’s bill, perhaps the 128th Legislature’s battle lines — and stalemate issues that could last well into June — have been etched.
This item was originally published in Daily Brief, a free political newsletter distributed Monday through Friday by the Bangor Daily News to inform dialogue about Maine politics and government. To read more of today’s Daily Brief, click here. To have the Daily Brief delivered daily to your inbox, click here.