President Donald Trump’s secretary of labor last month asked Gov. Paul LePage to rethink his decision to withdraw from a federal program that sends approximately $9 million to the state each year to pay for training for thousands of unemployed workers and helps to fund the state’s network of 12 regional career centers.

The U.S. Department of Labor on Monday released correspondence between Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta and LePage from September, in response to a public records request under the federal Freedom of Information Act. The letters reveal that LePage had rejected federal funding for unemployed workers when the governor’s administration had previously denied doing so.

“I will not continue to participate in a system that wastes money,” LePage wrote in a Sept. 7 letter to Acosta. “This letter will serve to notify you that Maine is no longer participating in the WIOA Title IB program. We ask that no more of these funds be sent to the Maine Department of Labor.”

In a Sept. 20 response, Acosta warned LePage that rejecting funding the state receives under the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act could force some of the state’s career centers to close and put services at risk for 50,000 people who seek help upgrading their skills, gaining work experience and searching for jobs.

“Without the Title I funding, the [career centers] will face reduced ability to pay for physical space and other critical items, such as equipment,” Acosta wrote in the letter to LePage. “Depending on the infrastructure agreements in local workforce development areas, some [career centers] may have to close.”

Three regional workforce development boards, led by businesses, manage much of the federal funding, and oversee training, counseling and job search help for unemployed workers, including those who are laid off and living in poverty.

LePage has tried twice to replace those local boards with one statewide board, most recently on July 11. Both times, the federal government has rejected his request because he didn’t work in collaboration with local decisionmakers, the U.S. Department of Labor said.

The governor said he was rejecting the workforce funds in response to the federal government’s denial of his latest reorganization request.

With only enough money to last into the fall, unemployed worker training programs around the state have started winding down their operations.

Some unemployed workers started receiving notice last month that the funding they depend on to pay for training program tuition might stop because of LePage’s action. The Advertiser Democrat reported Oct. 5 that 14 employees who work with Western Maine Community Action to help the unemployed in Oxford, Franklin and Androscoggin counties have received layoff notices.

The workforce boards have expressed frustration about the lack of communication and information about the governor’s intentions, and the absence of guidance on how they should continue to deliver job training services.

In fact, LePage’s administration denied in early September that the governor had declined the federal money.

“Any statement indicating that the Governor has rejected this funding is categorically untrue,” Maine Department of Labor spokeswoman Laura Hudson wrote to the BDN on Sept. 11.

But the letter LePage sent to Acosta on Sept. 7 clearly shows the Republican governor’s intention to reject the federal funds.

In addition to asking “that no more of these funds be sent to the Maine Department of Labor,” LePage wrote in the two-paragraph letter he was “very disappointed” that federal officials hadn’t approved his request to reorganize job training services.

“The current system is fraught with redundancies and waste, and I have tried for nearly 7 years to reduce overhead and administrative costs so that more funds can go directly to the constituents we are trying to put back to work,” he wrote.

LePage told “a total lie to the public,” said Antoinette Mancusi, deputy director of Coastal Counties Workforce Inc., based in Brunswick. It oversees training on behalf of the Coastal Counties Workforce Board for job seekers in York, Cumberland, Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Waldo and Knox counties.

The workforce development board system combines various funding sources to deliver help for job seekers; the WIOA funds that LePage has rejected are the system’s single largest source. Without them, many services will suffer or disappear, said Michael Bourret, executive director of Coastal Counties Workforce Inc.

“In the short-term it’s going to be damaged,” Bourret said, adding that Maine may have to wait more than a year for a new governor before funding can flow again. “A lot of wasted time and effort can go on in the next few months and year that are unnecessary.”

Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is the editor of Maine Focus, a team that conducts journalism investigations and projects at the Bangor Daily News. She also writes for the newspaper, often centering her work on issues of sexual...