State of Maine: Bad timing on welfare bill

As if the Maine Legislature has not had enough trouble bringing the 128th Legislature to a close, Governor Paul LePage wants to bring legislators back yet again this summer to consider a welfare reform bill. He spoke about his proposal in Portland last week.

He offered few details and a bill has yet to appear in print. On July 30, he said he hoped that would happen later in the week. It did not. The legislature cannot take up a subject without a printed bill. In initial reactions Republicans were generally supportive while Democrats, describing themselves as open to consideration of the legislation, reserved judgment until they have a bill in hand.

His proposal goes after those who abuse the system and incentivizes certain adults to seek work or job training. In a TV interview, he said, “Able-bodied people should be asked to get the work skills necessary to be productive members of society.”

Controlling welfare fraud may be a common goal in Augusta, but the question that remains unanswered is just how much abuse there is. The governor has maintained that some individuals are using cash benefits on alcohol and tattoos and accessing benefits from out of state. Addressing these would likely draw broad support.

He has expressed concern about the workload for caseworkers in the Department of Health and Human Services and would criminalize the failure of mandatory reporters (those required by law to report suspected child abuse or neglect) to report. The DHHS has recently been under investigation for the deaths of two children in the system.

Little could matter more than the protection of at-risk children, yet this is big policy to bring up when the legislature is not in regular session. Here’s why that matters. First of all, legislative rules require that bills have two weeks’ notice prior to a public hearing, and a bill of this magnitude certainly deserves a thorough public hearing.

The two-week notice requirement often goes out the window at the end of a session so last-minute bills can get squeezed into the pipeline, but the notice requirement is there for a reason. It allows everyone, from lobbyists, professionals and other concerned citizens to prepare for the hearing and arrange to make it to Augusta on the appointed day.

This bill is bound to generate significant interest across the state. Remember that within the legislature, much of the negotiating on major bills happens behind closed doors, so the only chance for the public to participate is at the hearing.

With no bill in hand until this week, that puts the earliest possible session date into the week of August 20. With two special sessions behind them, it is clear that there is a distinct fall-off in attendance when the legislature convenes in the summer. It is ostensibly the time legislators have to travel, or head to camp, or participate in the family activities they often miss during regular sessions. So coming back in August? Not popular. In addition, it’s an election year and campaigns are just shifting into gear. There is no way legislators running for office will welcome being out of town just now.

As for interested members of the public they, too, will not relish time in Augusta in August. Many Mainers have to make the bulk of their income in the summer and cannot just take off and head to the capital any old time. It is difficult enough to make the trip in the winter.

This is not to trivialize the importance of this legislation, only to question the timing. The governor has talked about welfare reform for most of his tenure. Why is he just introducing a bill now? It should have come in early in a regular session when it could be given the full attention of the legislature and the public. There are a number of efforts within the legislature to consider welfare reform proposals. Wouldn’t it be helpful to complete those before considering the governor’s proposal?

Though the governor may wish to devote a special session exclusively to a welfare reform bill, he does not control the legislative agenda. Having said how much legislators do not want to be in session in the summer, it is also true that they live to legislate. If they are called in there is no doubt that some will want to submit other bills. It will be up to the Legislative Council, not the governor, whether anything else is taken up.

Meanwhile, the legislature has yet to conclude its own business. The special session of last month recessed but did not adjourn. There is other business before the legislature which has proved intractable. It is not the right time to drop a major policy initiative into the mix.

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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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