AUGUSTA, Maine — Federal officials told Gov. Paul LePage in June that he can’t impose financial penalties on local groups that help job-seekers as part of his battle to cut bureaucracy out of job-training efforts, according to correspondence obtained this month by The Associated Press through a federal Freedom of Information Act request.
LePage, a Republican, has pushed for what would among be the nation’s toughest spending requirements for local workforce boards that help job-seekers access training, counseling, education and employment. The governor proposed cutting a local workforce board’s funding by 10 percent if it fails to spend at least 70 percent on job training, including adult education classes.
But LePage can get federal approval for his plan only if he removes the proposed penalties, which aren’t allowed under federal law, according to a June 26, 2018, letter to the governor from Rosemary Lahasky, acting assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration.
Instead, Maine could take away a local workforce board’s certification if it doesn’t meet LePage’s reform for two years, according to a subsequent email from U.S. Department of Labor Acting Regional Director Timothy Martin to Maine’s Department of Labor. Federal law already allows states to decertify local workforce groups under certain conditions.
Maine has addressed federal regulators’ concerns and has received full approval for its plan, state labor spokeswoman Laura Hudson said Wednesday. The LePage administration hasn’t fulfilled a state-level records request for the letter, and Hudson didn’t say when Maine received full approval.
The GOP governor has fought to reduce what he sees as waste in Maine’s workforce training system at a time of workforce shortages. Federal funding for local workforce boards goes through state government, but LePage told federal officials last fall that he didn’t want to participate in a system “fraught with redundancies and waste.”
The governor has lost battles to consolidate the boards under the administrations of Republican President Donald Trump and former President Barack Obama, a Democrat. LePage last year held up $8 million in federal funding for the boards but eventually released the money after a federal judge ordered him to do so.
Democratic Rep. Ryan Fecteau asked federal officials Tuesday why LePage’s revised reform didn’t get a vote from a statewide board he sits on that oversees such proposals. That board rejected LePage’s original, slightly milder reform last year, but the governor won support for his tougher plan from the board in January when it gained new members appointed by LePage.
“Setting these unattainable expenditure requirements for local workforce boards totally sets them up for failure, which provides the governor with the exact result he wants,” Fecteau said, “which is to decertify the local workforce boards, because he doesn’t want them to exist.”
The leaders of Maine’s three local workforce boards declined to comment. They have said that LePage’s latest proposal would hurt vulnerable job seekers, including veterans, by taking away money for career counselors and other services that don’t count as job training.
“My fear and the fear of the local workforce board is, we’re going to place people into training and they’re not going to succeed,” Fecteau said. “Because we haven’t properly evaluated their skill set, the accommodations that might be needed to be made for them.”
Federal law already limits workforce boards from spending over 10 percent of funds on administrative costs. The deputy director of the workforce board based in Cumberland County, Antoinette Mancusi, has said her board this year is spending only 30 percent on job training as described by LePage.
The governor’s office, meanwhile, has argued that Maine could dip into a $3 million pool of federal funding that covers basic job search help.
Fecteau, who also sits on the Legislature’s committee on Labor and Economic Development, said the governor could always submit a bill making sure such funding is available.
“There’s very infrequently a time when there are extra dollars hanging around,” he said.
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