PORTLAND, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage’s decision to withhold federal money meant to help unemployed Mainers could force an organization that uses the funding for job training programs to shut down next year, its executive director told a federal court Monday.
The threat of closure to Coastal Counties Workforce Inc. came up during the trial of its lawsuit to compel LePage to release millions in federal funds that each year pay for training for thousands of unemployed workers and support a network of 12 regional career centers around the state.
The governor’s decision has already made it difficult for the group to cover rent at its Brunswick office, its executive director, Michael Bourret, told a Portland court. The organization also closed a Biddeford job training center, sharply reduced the amount it spends on job training and would have to close by June, if the money isn’t released, he said.
“It was basically to shut us down,” Bourret said of a October letter from the governor saying the state would stop reimbursing the group for expenses at the end of November.
Along with two other business-led, regional workforce development boards, Coastal Counties Workforce administers more than $8 million in annual workforce-training funds provided under the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. The organization claims that LePage has broken federal law by refusing to release the funds within 30 days of them having become available in August.
For years, LePage has been in a tug of war with the regional boards for control of the federal money, which he says would be more efficiently administered at the state level.
In September, the Republican governor told the U.S. Department of Labor that Maine would no longer participate in the program because the federal government has not let him replace the regional boards with a statewide agency based in Augusta.
“I will not continue to participate in a system that wastes money,” LePage wrote in a September letter to the department. “We ask that no more of these funds be sent to the Maine Department of Labor.”
The federal department has twice rejected LePage’s requests for centralization because he didn’t work in collaboration with local decision makers as required. Following the governor’s September letter, the Trump administration urged LePage to reconsider.
Leaving the program could close federally funded career centers and endanger job training and other employment services of 50,000 Mainers, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta told LePage in an autumn letter.
Much of Bourret’s Monday testimony focused on the workings of the organization he heads, the niceties of the federal law that supplies most of its funding and laying out the dispute with the governor.
On cross examination, Assistant Attorney General Nancy Macirowski questioned the director about his $97,000 salary and why Coastal Counties Workforce hadn’t accepted the state’s offer of funding in four-month chunks instead of its agreed-to, two-year contract.
“I though the goal was unethical and I would not be doing my job by signing that contract,” Bourret replied.
Justice John Woodcock Jr., who heard the case, said Monday that he would need some time to issue a ruling. He noted that it is unusual for a federal court to weigh in on what a state officials should do with federal money.
Lawyers for both parties declined to comment beyond what had been said in court.
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