Democrats push LePage to tap unused federal funds to aid poor Mainers

House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, will introduce a new bill today that would expand and enhance Maine’s social services safety net, funded largely with what Gideon says is $150 million in federal funds that Gov. Paul LePage’s administration isn’t spending.

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 TANF recipients and families whose housing costs exceed 50 percent of their income; increase the maximum TANF benefit to the average of nearby states; expand transportation programs; and create the Addiction Prevention and Family Stabilization Program.

Gideon, who will present what she calls the Leveraging Investments in Families Today (LIFT) bill during a noontime news conference and then at a 1 p.m. hearing with the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said the number of Maine children living in deep poverty — less than $10,000 a year for a family of three — is increasing eight times faster than the national average.

“This initiative will stabilize families by ensuring basics like housing and heat, create economic opportunities for families to get ahead and make it easier for people to get back to work,” reads a news release from Gideon’s office.

The impact on the state budget of using federal funds in these ways isn’t clear but Gideon is sure to receive intense push-back. 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. Another example of that is LePage’s pending proposal to reduce the lifetime limit on collecting funds from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program from five years to three years.

Gideon’s proposal of the bill is a component of Democrats’ push this year to halt or reduce austerity measures by LePage 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.

How these proposals and the budget will shake out in the coming weeks will be interesting to watch. 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, but Democratic leaders have made it clear they will go to the mat fighting against that. 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 today, perhaps the battle lines — and stalemate issues that could last well into June — have been etched. — Christopher Cousins

Quick hits

  • LePage: 900 jobs he said were leaving are still here, for now. Basically a year and one month after Gov. Paul LePage generated days of headlines by claiming a southern Maine company was about to leave the state and take 900 jobs with it, the governor said the company remains operational. “We are going to be having a meeting with senior management of that company in the next few days,” LePage said Friday, just after talking about the state’s economy at Somic America in Brewer and just before a tour of the manufacturing plant. He again declined to name the company and did not say what the upcoming meeting with it is about or if his prediction about job losses was wrong or just premature. — Nok-Noi Ricker
  • A Republican bill to roll back Obama-era bank regulations passed a committee with U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin’s help. The Financial CHOICE Act passed the House Financial Services Committee with support from Republicans — including Poliquin, a Republican from Maine’s 2nd District on Thursday. But it’s unlikely to become law, according to The New York Times. It would roll back the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, one of President Barack Obama’s signature laws, to exempt banks from certain regulations and weaken the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau created under the law. But Maine credit unions have complained that the law over-regulates them and in a statement, Poliquin said the bill “will benefit Maine and help our small businesses.” Democrats and consumer protection groups will defend the law: In a letter, the progressive U.S. Public Interest Research Groups said it would have “a devastating effect on the capacity of regulators to protect the public interest.” Michael Shepherd

Today in A-town

A day of relatively high-profile committee action is on tap for this Monday at the State House, starting with more attempts to erode labor unions in Maine.

The Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee kicks off around 9 a.m. with the introduction of a handful of so-called righttowork bills that would erode labor unions’ rights to collect fees from employees they represent in collective bargaining. Currently, employees at businesses or government agencies that are unionized pay membership dues or equivalent fees for non-members in exchange for the unions representing workers in negotiations over pay, workplace grievances and other issues. Some Republicans, particularly Gov. Paul LePage, have long argued that labor unions are a drag on Maine’s economy. LePage has attempted similar legislation multiple times and once said not enacting right-to-work legislation was his biggest regret as governor.

Democrats have been staunchly against right-to-work legislation, dubbing it “right to work for less” or some variation thereof. The Democratic majority in the House will likely block the bills, and Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson of Allagash will introduce a bill today that would give contract arbitrators more authority and final say during negotiations. Lawmakers appear to be expecting a crowd and have booked an overflow room for today’s public hearings.

  • In other committee action, the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee will hold a work session on an attempt to create a white-collar crime registry.
  • The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee will take testimony on a bill that would bar the transfer of a casino operator’s license for at least five years. It’s sponsored by Sen. Ronald Collins, R-Wells and aimed at the backers of a 2018 referendum for a York County casino, who intend to sell the rights to a license.
  • The State and Local Government Committee will be introduced to a recent proposal from LePage to require opioid addicts to pay for Narcan and other opioid antagonists on their second or subsequent overdose. Read the Bangor Daily News’ recent coverage of that proposal by clicking here.
  • The Health and Human Services Committee could take votes on a number of proposals to regulate or restrict cash social services benefits, including a bid to bar users of Maine’s electronic benefits cards — which are how some social services programs such as food stamps are distributed in Maine — from withdrawing cash with the cards. Another bill being introduced today would require that Maine’s cash benefits be used only in Maine.  

Check out today’s full committee schedule by clicking here. — Christopher Cousins

Reading list

How I ran out of arguments and caught the bug

My 12-year-old came running down the stairs.

“There’s a wasp in my room! Dad, can you come catch it?”

“You catch it,” I said. I don’t like wasps any more than the next guy. In the end, it wasn’t a wasp. Just some harmless bug.

“Nooooo! What if it stings me?”

“Put a jar over it and then cover the jar with a piece of paper. Bring it outside.”

“Dad, please. Why do I have to catch it?”

“Because you’re young and agile.”

“Yeah, but your brain is fully developed,” he said. “Mine is just mush.”

It was a difficult point to deny, though I was catching the bug I realized I’d been outsmarted by a mushbrain. Here’s your soundtrack.Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.