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Maine Legislative Council: Welfare Reform Out, Medicaid Expansion In
10/30/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Welfare reform efforts by Republicans in Augusta suffered a setback today at the hands of majority Democrats, who blocked a GOP-backed measure from consideration in the next session that begins in January. The bill would have required applicants for benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to prove that they are actively looking for work. It's one of about 400 measures reviewed by a committee of legislative leaders who decided instead to advance a bill that would expand Medicaid benefits. A.J. Higgins has more.

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The second session of the Legislature is shorter than the first, and is dedicated to the review of bills that were carried over from the previous session. Lawmakers will also consider budget bills and emergency legislation. The Legislative Council -- a 10-member committee comprised of House and Senate leadership - must determine which new bills are deemed worthy of consideration and which are not.

If the process sounds political, it's because it is. And House Republican Leader Ken Fredette says there should be no doubts about what his job-seeking bill for welfare recipients is about. "I think it's partly about what the Republican Party stands for," Fredette says.

Fredette's bill would require those applying to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program - or TANF - to prove they were actively looking for work before they could receive benefits. That's a position supported by Gov. Paul LePage, who says there are simply too many people in Maine who are getting paid not to work.

But Fredette's proposal was not well received by the Legislative Council, which consists of six Democrats and four Republicans. Fredette says the rejection is a setback not only for Maine taxpayers, but also those who receive benefits.

"It's about setting a tone in Maine that people have to be responsible for their own lives," Fredette says. "We want to take of those who need the services, those that are most in need. But at the same time we don't want there to be any abuses in the system. These are not barriers; these are simply requirements for people to meet to receive state benefits."

In rejecting the bill, majority Democrats sided with advocacy groups that have argued the proposed requirement turns a blind eye to many of the serious obstacles that young mothers receiving TANF benefits encounter daily. Access to transportation, child care and physical disabilities are real impediments to TANF recipients, according to Sara Gagne-Holmes, the executive director at Maine Equal Justice Partners. Gagne-Holmes says her clients are anything but freeloaders.

"The data just does not support that," Gagne-Holmes says. "These families are struggling. Often times they turn to TANF when they are in crisis. We need to help them be able to pick up the pieces of their lives, and then help them transition into the workforce with skills that will provide a living wage."

While Republicans stake their political reputations on welfare reform, Democrats want Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act to be their defining issue. Lawmakers passed such a bill and came close to overriding the governor's veto earlier this year, and House Speaker Mark Eves says his bill to reinstitute the expansion is necessary if Maine is going to avert a health care crisis.

"We are losing, come January first, $700,000 a day, and 25,000 Mainers are going to lose their health care come January 1," Eves says. "We have a great opportunity here and that is why I'm very excited about the effort to make sure that 70,000 Mainers have health care."

Republican State Chair Rick Bennett accused Eves and other Democratic leaders of violating legislative rules that say a bill can't be introduced twice in the same two-year legislative term.

But the rules also allow for emergency measures, and Eves says that if health care isn't an emergency in this state, he doesn't know what is.


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