January 17, 2013

Maine Speaker proposes job training for welfare recipients

Mark Eves' proposal will test his ability to gather support from Republicans.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — House Speaker Mark Eves announced Thursday that he has submitted his first major legislative initiative, a bill designed to ensure that welfare recipients are ready for the work force.

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick.


The bill will test the Democratic speaker's ability to gain support from Republicans and Gov. Paul LePage. Republicans have called for reductions and changes to the state's welfare programs, often arguing that the programs are too generous and don't create incentives for recipients to find work.

At last year's Republican State Convention, LePage famously told the crowd, "To all you able-bodied people out there, get off the couch and get yourself a job." The comment drew a standing ovation from the crowd.

Eves' bill, which has not yet been printed, aims to make sure recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) get the "tools and training necessary to enter the work force and secure long-term employment."

The legislation would direct the Department of Health and Human Services to assess welfare recipients' skills to determine what they need to enter the work force.

We know the best anti-poverty program is a job," Eves said in a prepared statement. "The 'Ticket to Work' bill will help more Maine families climb into the middle class -- rather than fall out of it."

He submitted a similar proposal in the previous Legislature, with an estimated cost near $1 million over two years -- a figure that played into the bill's defeat.

The state already has a program to get welfare recipients into the work force. Most parents who receive welfare benefits are required to participate in Additional Support for People in Retraining and Employment (ASPIRE). The program helps welfare recipients with job placement.

Dale Denno, director of the DHHS Office for Family Independence, said Thursday that most TANF recipients are immediately enrolled in the support program, and meet every six months with one of the program's 53 specialists.

Denno said program staffing has been fairly consistent despite budget cuts.

But he acknowledged that the program needs strengthening. He highlighted the collaboration by the DHHS and the Labor and Education departments that the LePage administration has been pushing.

The efforts have become more important, he said, since the governor enacted a provision that limits Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to 60 months.

"Now that TANF is really focused on being a temporary structure, we need to use that time very aggressively to make sure that people have the skills they need to support their families," Denno said.

Denno said identifying skills and job placement are labor intensive.

"Right now we're asking the same person to do too many tasks," he said. "We're running (the ASPIRE specialists) ragged."

Jodi Quintero, a spokeswoman for Eves, said the bill may require some "upfront costs," potentially through training the current staff or hiring specialists. She said Eves hopes to work with Republicans and the administration to contain the costs.

She said investment in training or work placement ultimately benefits the state by producing a more efficient welfare program.

Eves' similar proposal in 2011, L.D. 1001, passed unanimously in the House and the Senate, but sputtered after it was assigned a two-year cost of $970,000 by the Legislature's fiscal review office. The costs were based largely on 14 new positions.

Quintero said Eves is now targeting a less expensive bill in hopes of winning support from Republicans, including the governor.

(Continued on page 2)

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