Independent candidate for governor Eliot Cutler released his welfare reform plan Wednesday, seeking to weigh in on a campaign issue that is resonating with voters but has largely been dominated by incumbent Gov. Paul LePage.
Cutler agrees with LePage on some reform measures but said the governor has politicized the issue and demonized the poor. He also called for the state to make it easier for people to transition from welfare to work.
“Paul LePage often talks about Maine’s welfare programs, and he has recently offered some sound solutions to problems of fraud and abuse,” Cutler said in his plan. “But he does not know how to gain broad acceptance for his good ideas, and he has failed to solve the most serious problems plaguing Maine’s welfare system.”
The discussion about welfare reform has struck a chord with many voters, according to a University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll conducted after the June primary election for the Portland Press Herald.
Among the more than 600 people surveyed, 46 percent said welfare does more harm than good, while 43 percent said assistance does more good than harm. Additionally, 41 percent of those polled said they don’t believe most welfare recipients need the assistance they receive.
LePage has made welfare reform a priority during his first term in office, and he has returned to the issue repeatedly during his reelection campaign. Most recently, his administration began putting photos on EBT cards, tried to prohibit undocumented immigrants from receiving general assistance and required convicted drug felons seeking state benefits to submit to random drug tests.
In June, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud proposed creating an independent Office of the Inspector General to investigate and fight welfare waste, fraud and abuse. The inspector general would be appointed by the governor and subject to confirmation from the state Senate for a four-year term.
Cutler outlined four elements of his plan on Wednesday:
• Stop waste, fraud and abuse by issuing smart cards, with microchip technology, that can immediately flag improper purchases under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
• Fix the “cliff effect,” where people lose their benefits cold turkey after getting a job, by creating a tiered reduction of benefits and providing better access to transportation and child care.
• Encourage personal responsibility and self-sufficiency by tying assistance to school attendance and parent-child interaction and by creating a program called “Giving Back to ME,” where some former longtime welfare recipients who went on to good-paying jobs would pay a small percentage of taxable income to fund childcare programs.
• Improve accountability at the Department of Health and Human Services by better monitoring of child care facilities, by making the DHHS budget performance-based and by expanding MaineCare to more low-income people, which is often a barrier to work.
LePage and his supporters say he’s done more than anyone in state government to reform public assistance programs, but Cutler said LePage hasn’t fixed most problems.
“Instead, he has politicized the issue of welfare and demonized the poor,” Cutler said.
LePage campaign spokesman Alex Willette hailed Cutler’s support for the governor’s welfare proposals, saying most of the independent’s ideas have been either implemented or already proposed.
“We welcome Eliot’s support of the governor’s record of reforming welfare, a stark contrast to the position of Congressman Michael Michaud, who doesn’t even recognize a need for welfare reform,” Willette said.
Willette’s comments were echoed in a press release by the Maine Republican Party.
However, Willette pointed out one important area of disagreement between the Cutler and Lepage: Expanding Mainecare, the state’s version of the Medicaid health insurance program for low-income people.
“While Eliot appears to support much of the Governor’s welfare reform agenda, one place they differ is his plan to further expand the Medicaid rolls, the same program that when last expanded created the massive debt to Maine hospitals,” he said. “The Governor is very proud to have fulfilled his promise to pay off the hospital debt in his first term, cleaning up the mess from the last Medicaid expansion.”
David Farmer, Michaud’s senior policy advisor, said in a written statement that Michaud is the only candidate who can bring together Republicans, Democrats and independents to implement needed reforms.
“Governor Paul LePage has failed to fix welfare and the Department of Health and Human Services is broken,” Farmer said. “(Michaud) has an aggressive plan to eliminate waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement at all levels while ensuring that low income families get the support they need to work their way into the middle class. Eliot Cutler brings nothing new to the conversation.”
Cutler, however, hit Michaud’s plan, saying he “just wants to add another layer of government at a cost of $578,000 per year.”
Michaud spokeswoman Lizzy Reinholt said in a written statement that the cost is “a small price tag” to ensure accountability to an agency that over sees “billions of taxpayer dollars.” She noted that under LePage, $20 million in federal funding for Riverview Psychiatric Center was lost, hundreds of thousands of dollars was spent on a Medicare expansion study – portions of which turned out to be plagiarized – and the state Center for Disease Control was embroiled in a document-shredding scandal.
“Gov. LePage’s broken department of Health and Human Services needs more oversight and someone to hold it accountable and ensure it’s conducting its business in a transparent and efficient way,” Reinholt said.
The Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative think tank whose policy ideas and former staffers have found a home in the LePage administration, said in a press release that Cutler’s plan to eliminate the cliff effect “should be the priority of the Legislature regardless of who is in the Blaine House.” However, the group expressed concern that the “Giving Back to ME” proposal would create a new tax.