AUGUSTA — House Speaker Mark Eves announced Thursday that he has submitted his first major legislative initiative, a bill designed to ensure that welfare recipients are ready for the work force.

The bill will test the Democratic speaker’s ability to gain support from Republicans and Gov. Paul LePage. Republicans have called for reductions and changes to the state’s welfare programs, often arguing that the programs are too generous and don’t create incentives for recipients to find work.

At last year’s Republican State Convention, LePage famously told the crowd, “To all you able-bodied people out there, get off the couch and get yourself a job.” The comment drew a standing ovation from the crowd.

Eves’ bill, which has not yet been printed, aims to make sure recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) get the “tools and training necessary to enter the work force and secure long-term employment.”

The legislation would direct the Department of Health and Human Services to assess welfare recipients’ skills to determine what they need to enter the work force.

We know the best anti-poverty program is a job,” Eves said in a prepared statement. “The ‘Ticket to Work’ bill will help more Maine families climb into the middle class — rather than fall out of it.”

He submitted a similar proposal in the previous Legislature, with an estimated cost near $1 million over two years — a figure that played into the bill’s defeat.

The state already has a program to get welfare recipients into the work force. Most parents who receive welfare benefits are required to participate in Additional Support for People in Retraining and Employment (ASPIRE). The program helps welfare recipients with job placement.

Dale Denno, director of the DHHS Office for Family Independence, said Thursday that most TANF recipients are immediately enrolled in the support program, and meet every six months with one of the program’s 53 specialists.

Denno said program staffing has been fairly consistent despite budget cuts.

But he acknowledged that the program needs strengthening. He highlighted the collaboration by the DHHS and the Labor and Education departments that the LePage administration has been pushing.

The efforts have become more important, he said, since the governor enacted a provision that limits Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to 60 months.

“Now that TANF is really focused on being a temporary structure, we need to use that time very aggressively to make sure that people have the skills they need to support their families,” Denno said.

Denno said identifying skills and job placement are labor intensive.

“Right now we’re asking the same person to do too many tasks,” he said. “We’re running (the ASPIRE specialists) ragged.”

Jodi Quintero, a spokeswoman for Eves, said the bill may require some “upfront costs,” potentially through training the current staff or hiring specialists. She said Eves hopes to work with Republicans and the administration to contain the costs.

She said investment in training or work placement ultimately benefits the state by producing a more efficient welfare program.

Eves’ similar proposal in 2011, L.D. 1001, passed unanimously in the House and the Senate, but sputtered after it was assigned a two-year cost of $970,000 by the Legislature’s fiscal review office. The costs were based largely on 14 new positions.

Quintero said Eves is now targeting a less expensive bill in hopes of winning support from Republicans, including the governor.

On Thursday, Eves met with Republican House leader Ken Fredette of Newport to brief him on the proposal.

Quintero said the bill dovetails with the administration’s current retraining efforts.

If Eves’ bill ends up adding positions to the DHHS, it could be tough sell for LePage. The governor has been reducing positions in state government, including DHHS.

On Thursday, DHHS officials echoed the governor’s message, saying better interagency collaboration could mitigate the needs for additional staffing.

Eves’ bill also would direct the DHHS to move TANF recipients to the federally funded Supplemental Security Program if they have disabilities that prevent them from working.

The federal program is funded by tax revenues and designed to provide aged, blind or disabled people with basic living needs, such as food, clothing and housing.

More than 36,250 people received Supplemental Security in 2011, according to the U.S. Social Security Administration. The number of recipients has risen over the last nine years. In 2002, there were more than 30,900 recipients. Most recipients have been classified as disabled.

Eves said in a statement that moving TANF recipients to the federal program could save the state money.

The details of his proposal will be released when the bill is cleared by the Legislature’s Revisor’s Office. Friday is the last day for lawmakers to submit legislation for this year’s session.

State House Bureau Writer Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com