AUGUSTA — Regional workforce agencies will have to devote a larger share of federal funds to job training next year as part of a compromise struck Friday after hours of debate over a more sweeping LePage administration proposal.

In the latest flashpoint over use of federal funding, Gov. Paul LePage wanted to require the agencies to spend at least 60 percent on job training starting this year, up from the 30-some percent currently expended. But leaders of the regional workforce boards called LePage’s 60 percent proposal unrealistic and potentially devastating to programs that help unemployed or underemployed Mainers find jobs or receive the training needed to enter today’s workforce.

Those tensions were on full display Friday as members of the Maine State Workforce Board debated LePage’s 60 percent proposal before adopting a policy that would give agencies more time to comply. The board voted to set a goal of 45 percent starting next year and rising to 60 percent in two years.

“We have been cast as somehow throwing money out the door and wasting money in the system, and nothing could be further from the truth,” said Michael Bourret, director of Coastal Counties Workforce Inc., which oversees federally funded workforce development in southern and coastal Maine. “If you want to have collaboration, if you want to talk about collaboration, then, dammit, collaborate with us and stop talking about it up here. Come to our board meetings and find out what happens on the ground. Find out what we’re doing.”

LePage has been trying for at least four years to change what he contends is wasteful spending on administration of the state’s federally funded workforce development program. Maine has three regional boards contracted with the state to oversee programs that provide job training, counseling and skills development to workers, while partnering with local businesses to connect them with employees.

Under pressure from LePage, those agencies have substantially increased the portion of federal funding spent on job training in recent years. But agency representatives say clients often need substantive skills assessment, counseling, remedial education and other services before they can maintain a job.

LePage has tried unsuccessfully to convince both the Obama and Trump administrations to allow him to consolidate those programs in Augusta, and he told President Trump’s Labor secretary that he “will not continue to participate in a system that wastes money.”

Coastal Counties Workforce currently has a lawsuit pending in federal court aiming to force the LePage administration to release federal funds for the current year that they say are being withheld illegally.

On Friday, LePage administration officials acknowledged that the regional agencies will have to adapt and find efficiencies to achieve the 60 percent goal, but said the would-be workers would be the beneficiaries. They compared the current system to a business operating on an outdated, 20-year-old business plan and said Maine could become a national leader by earmarking the bulk of its money to job training.

“The governor is asking the system to spread more money on the customers of the system than on the system itself with this new 60 percent goal,” said Garret Oswald, director of the Maine State Workforce Board. “We know that we need to respond to this new environment with less bricks-and-mortar and more targeted outreach. It’s not just Maine, it is all across the country. We know we need to modernize our system.”

But opponents of the 60 percent proposal pointed out that the state abandoned a goal, set just four years ago, to devote 40 percent of the federal funding to job training after none of the agencies had been able to meet that threshold. They also accused the LePage administration of asking the board to approve a major policy shift without first reviewing all of the data on how regional boards spend federal funds.

Instead, board members voted – after several failed motions – on a compromise that set a goal of 45 percent for the program year that begins July 1 and then raises the goal to 60 percent for program year 2019.

“In my experience in working at a very successful company, you don’t make a decision this drastic. You take steps towards it,” said board member Liz Rensenbrink with Tyler Technologies, a national software company with offices in Bangor and Yarmouth. “We’re not kicking the can down the road. We are making a very moderate, very reasonable decision.”

During Friday’s discussion, representatives from several other businesses said they supported the 60 percent goal because Maine’s workforce development programs need a shot in the arm.

Jonathan Mason, director of human resources at Bath Iron Works, said it has become “very challenging” for the shipyard to find mechanics and other laborers with the necessary skill set to build Navy destroyers. In response, BIW now runs a basic career-and-technical education program that teaches “fundamentals” such as arithmetic and blueprint reading. At the same time, BIW has reduced benefits, laid off some workers and made other difficult decisions in order to reduce costs after losing several major contracts.

“We had to figure out how to do more with less, so the challenge in this is not lost on me, nor do I think it is lost on anybody else on this board or in the room today,” Mason said. “But nonetheless, it is something any organization – public, private, for-profit, nonprofit – inevitably, we all face it at some point.”

Others, however, saw political overtones in LePage’s proposal.

Opponents pointed out that the LePage administration wanted to apply the 60 percent goal midway through the current fiscal year, all but assuring failure. Also, the policy change would allow LePage or a future governor to dissolve a regional workforce board if it did not meet the 60 percent goal within two years. That led some to speculate that LePage was merely seeking to use other means to achieve the consolidation that was rejected by the Obama and Trump administrations.

“I think what’s important here is the policy that was desired (by LePage) before we got to this point was dissolving the board,” said board member Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford. “I find it interesting that we have such a lofty goal now after the prior goal was not achieved because the feds did not allow it.”

Ultimately, two lawmakers who work closely together on the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee – Fecteau and Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough – hashed out the compromise that won approval from the board on a 13-9 vote. The new policy also would allow regional agencies to devote up to 10 percent of federal funds to case managers. Those case managers serve an important role, agency leaders said, because they offer assistance before and after job training to clients who may have educational or skills deficiencies, were recently imprisoned or struggle with drug addiction.

“We all had a healthy conversation,” said Joanna Russell, executive director of the Northeastern Workforce Development Board that serves Aroostook, Hancock, Penobscot, Piscataquis and Washington counties.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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