By Robert E. Macdonald
Mayor of Lewiston
What is the greatest obstacle preventing meaningful welfare reform in Maine? The Courts? Fraud? Groups with so many letters in their names that they dwarf the alphabet? The answer: none of the above.
No, it’s a word which when used in the Halls of the State House enjoys the reverence that would be given to prose coming from the Burning Bush. A word used to invalidate testimony from anyone who dares speak negatively against or question the current welfare system. The word is “anecdotal.”We’ll get back to that.
Two weeks ago I spent the better part of two weeks in the Halls of Confusion, better known as The State House. During this time, it became apparent why Maine is a welfare destination. It also provided the answer as to why Governor Paul LePage and the taxpayers of Maine are so frustrated by the system.
The main problem revolves around the 90-percent reimbursement given to community service-centers once they reach a certain, pre-set dollar amount. Here, there are two distinct schools of thought. Portland and Bangor’s philosophy is to get to the 90-percent reimbursement as fast as they can by increasing the welfare rolls.
Lewiston, Auburn, Biddeford and other service-center communities try to keep welfare rolls down. Therefore, they get to the 90-percent threshold much later in the year. It appears that the philosophy of Portland and Bangor is what rightly caught the Governor’s eye, leading him to introduce Draconian measures that will hurt those communities (Lewiston and Auburn) that attempt to keep welfare costs down.
But the legislation might act as a catalyst, discouraging the current practices of Portland and Bangor, bringing them in line with their sister communities.
Another cause of concern for Lewiston and Auburn was those families coming off TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families). If the legislation is enacted, up to 337 families from Lewiston and 109 families from Auburn could be added to the welfare rolls during the current year.
In Lewiston, it is estimated that if the 90-percent state welfare reimbursement is taken away and 25 percent of the 337 TANF families are picked up by Lewiston’s General Assistance, taxpayers would see an estimated mil rate increase of eight cents this year and a 27-cent increase the following year.
I would note that legislation submitted by Rep. Thomas Saviello and Rep./Mayor Alan Casavant would have prevented those coming off TANF from applying for General Assistance. In Augusta this was the equivalent of “The Nuclear Option.” It would have forced politicians to step up and publicly show courage. Is it any wonder why the legislation died a silent death in committee?
During legislative negotiations, the LePage Administration offered a block grant to be used to fund the General Assistance Department of accepting communities. It would have let communities opt out of welfare, thus sending their needy to communities retaining welfare.
It appears the battle may be over. The 90-percent rate will be reduced to 85 percent. TANF has been temporarily negated. But the path to true welfare reform is created in this bill. A workshop of nine members (seven voting, two non-voting) is to be established.
The voting members will be made up of three current welfare directors, the commissioner or designee of the Dept. of Health and Human Services, the director of the Office of Family Independence or designee, the executive director of the Maine State Housing Authority or designee and a member of a community service group.
The two non-voting members will consist of a person with knowledge of VA benefits and a person who has knowledge of affordable housing programs. Thank you, Governor LePage.
At the start of this column, I mentioned the word “anecdotal” and how it inhibits true welfare reform. Roam the halls of the State House and bring up your favorite welfare story. Those populating the hall will dismiss it as “anecdotal.”
Listen to the committee testimony of the crowds of executive directors of the various social-service agencies. They constantly use the word “anecdotal” to describe any negative comments about their agency and its mission.
Mention “fraud” in the State House Halls or the office of the Speaker of the House, and again you’ll hear the word “anecdotal.”I believe that if Helen Keller came to Lewiston, she could find fraudulent activity in less than 10 minutes. But Keller had immense intelligence; therefore, it is unfair to compare her to many of our state legislators.
Lastly, I would suggest that Governor LePage call out the Maine National Guard to round up all our State Legislators and drop them in the poorest section of Lewiston on the last day of any month. I’ll bet that before 1 a.m., the word “anecdotal” will be changed to the phrase: “Okay, you’re right. Now get me out of here!”