The state's failure to require welfare recipients to meet work participation standards has triggered a $7 million fine from the federal Office of Family Assistance. Gov. Paul LePage and Republican leaders blame Democrats, saying that if GOP-backed welfare reform bills had passed, the state would not be in such a predicament. But Democrats say the penalty will be waived by the feds and that LePage's blustering is a campaign ploy.
State Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew said the $7 million fine is a big deal. And it will be piled on top of an earlier fine assessed for the same reason. "Currently, Maine faces now more than $20 million in penalties form the federal government," Mayhew said.
Gov. Paul LePage fired off a press statement saying the compliance issue could have been averted if majority Democrats would have supported his bills that would have required welfare recipients to look for a job and would have removed Maine's lenient exemptions that allow them to avoid working.
And despite assurances from Democratic leaders and poverty advocates that the penalties will be waived, Mayhew said she's not taking anything for granted.
"We must take these penalties seriously. It is why the governor has been so committed to reforming this program," Mayhew said. "These penalties date back to 2007. We have got to produce better results for the people of the state of Maine who are in need of assistance through the Department of Human Services to find jobs."
But Christine Hastedt, a policy analyst for Maine Equal Justice Partners, an advocacy group for the poor, said the concerns of the administration are without justification. Hastedt said the state will be eligible to have its penalties waived. That's because the latest penalties are assessed on the state's standing in 2011. And things have changed since then.
Hastedt said the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program, known as TANF, is currently in compliance with one of the federal categories, and can avoid other fines by submitting corrective action plans. She said that, according to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2013 report to Congress, Maine is one of 14 states that has been sanctioned for not meeting federal work participation standards since 2007 - and none of those states have paid a penalty.
"It is the case that the state has not yet had to pay anything in terms of fines with respect to the penalties that have been assessed previously," Hastedt said. "That's because we've submitted corrected compliance plans that the feds have not yet acted on. It is extremely unlikely that we will ever have to pay the entire amounts that have been assessed. We may not have to pay any - we just don't know yet."
Mayhew is not reassured by that suggestion. "We have no basis to believe that these penalties will be waived, either entirely or even a portion of the penalties," Mayhew said.
State Rep. Deb Sanderson, a Chelsea Republican, agrees. She said Democrats are not facing up to the problems in Maine's TANF program. "To simply say that, 'Well, they're never going to have to come after the money anyways,' - that is a cop-out. Why wouldn't they come after the money?" Sanderson said.
House Republican Leader Ken Fredette of Newport sponsored one of the governor's bill's that would have established a process for ensuring that TANF recipients demonstrate that they are looking for work before receiving cash benefits. He said that, had the bill passed, Maine would have been able to show the federal government it was taking corrective action.
"I think the Democrats' opposition to that, which is simply based on ideological grounds, shows that they want to maintain the status quo and not provide for reform," Fredette said.
But Lewiston Sen. Margaret Craven, the Democratic co-chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, said Republicans and LePage are kidding the public if they want them to believe that.
"The bills that the governor put out would not have made a damn bit of difference - either way, we would have still gotten this letter," Craven said.
Democratic leaders supported Craven's assessment of the GOP welfare bills. House Speaker Mark Eves said LePage's blast at Democrats is an attempt to obscure his own failures.
"At a time when Maine ranks 49th in the country for job creation, the governor should be focused on how to get more Mainers back to work - not continuing his war on the poor," Eves said.
The state has 60 days to appeal the latest TANF fine. DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew said she is still evaluating how the department will respond.