Job trainees left in limbo

The latest “repeal and replace” Republican health care proposal will either bring $40 million to Maine, or it won’t. The country breathlessly awaits the verdict of Maine Sen. Susan Collins. She’s leaning “no.”

Collins is the real deal. While many less fortunate states listen to their senators spout political platitudes about making health care available to all Americans at lower cost, Collins lays out the specifics. She objected to the complete absence of public hearings on the bill. She is examining the data, incomplete as it is, as it is released. She is analyzing that data in terms of the impact on Maine.

The senator is deeply grounded in the subject of health care insurance, and she verges on the obsessive when it comes to understanding the details of each proposal. She is particularly skeptical about coverage for pre-existing conditions in the new proposal. And she wants input from the Congressional Budget Office before she makes her final decision.

Too many U.S. senators are devoted to posturing, generalizations, the dictates of their parties and an unwavering dedication to their prospects in the next election. Not Collins. When she says, “I’m reading the fine print on Graham-Cassidy,” you can take that to the bank.

Gov. Paul LePage said Maine will receive “44 percent more in federal healthcare funding” under the latest proposal. Collins responded demurely that she is happy to receive “input from all of my constituents,” but she has made it clear that she is unmoved by the partisan back-and-forth over this or any other bill. She is suspicious of the governor’s claim, and she wants the facts.

There is another battle underway in Maine where the facts are in some dispute. A couple of weeks back, the governor appears to have expressed his intention to withhold roughly $8 million in job training funds provided by the federal government, a move that would interrupt training in progress for several thousand Mainers.

If there has been a common theme in the struggle to boost Maine’s economy, it has been the need to develop the state’s workforce. The once-celebrated Maine work ethic is now more a myth than a reality. Impeded by a growing substance abuse crisis, multigenerational poverty and a failure to develop 21st-century technological skills, Maine is ill-prepared to meet the needs of businesses that might be attracted by our natural beauty, clean air and water, safe streets and relatively low cost of living.

Given this, it is nothing short of shocking to hear that available funding may not be utilized. The governor says he is trying to generate efficiencies in the system by collapsing three regional workforce boards into one, allowing savings on program administration that could then be used for more training.

Sounds reasonable, and news reports said this type of bureaucratic streamlining is possible, but there is a process that includes collaboration among stakeholders. One administrator who has been through the process said that in the case of the governor’s request, “none of the steps were adhered to at all.” With a virtual absence of support from any of the regional or local organizations involved, the governor’s request was DOA.

This is business as usual for LePage. The city of Bangor is embroiled in a controversy about siting a forensic mental health facility in Bangor. When the city asked for details about the proposal, the governor told city officials to look it up on the internet.

As for the workforce training funds, okay, says our guy, keep your stupid money. Wait, what? Administrators in workforce training called the governor’s stance “unprecedented,” “incomprehensible” and “unconscionable.”

In a “courtesy call” from the Maine Department of Labor to a workforce development board, the board was advised that the governor had notified the feds by letter that the state would no longer be involved in their workforce development program. The U.S. Department of Labor acknowledged receiving the letter but has not made it publicly available.

Having notified the workforce boards of the governor’s intention to withdraw from the federal program, the Maine DOL then issued a statement saying the report that the governor rejected the funding “is categorically untrue.” Confused? Sure we are. No further explanation has been forthcoming.

In the meantime, job trainees are in limbo, not knowing if their potential employment lifeline is about to be pulled out from under them. What’s the status? Where’s the money? Will these training programs be terminated midstream? What will happen to the enrollees? At the moment, no one seems to know.

Pennywise and pound foolish may be the most charitable way to describe the governor’s decision, if it was a decision. To the men and women enrolled in these training programs, and to their families who were hoping that life was about to get better, it is just plain cruel.

We appreciate the governor’s desire to run the most cost-effective programs possible, but sometimes a little patience is required to get there. Workforce trainees have heeded the governor’s call to get trained and get working. Let’s not abandon them.

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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