AUGUSTA — Republican Gov. Paul LePage unveiled a bill Tuesday that attempts to fix a problem in the welfare system that can discourage recipients from accepting a raise or taking a second job because they’ll immediately lose their benefits and face an even bigger financial struggle than when they received public assistance.

LePage has sought big changes to Maine’s welfare programs since he took office in 2011, but most of his efforts have been deeply divisive and defeated by Democrats in the Legislature. Fixing the so-called welfare cliff, however, appears to be an issue that both sides are embracing this year, providing hope to supporters that something will get done.

“It’s unusual that we have both parties looking at the same idea, the same concept, so hopefully this can get through in some fashion,” LePage said Tuesday.

A mother with two children on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, for example, loses her benefits once she starts making more than $1,023 a month, which is well below the poverty level. Once her paycheck rises above that, she is kicked off the program but can still struggle greatly to make ends meet.

Under LePage’s bill, none of recipients’ gross earned income would be counted in the benefits calculation for two months after they begin to work so they can maintain their state support. After those two months, the amount of assistance they’d receive would gradually decline. The calculation would be slightly different for those who work less than 40 hours a week.

Mary Mayhew, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, called it a “sensible realignment of incentives” in Maine’s welfare system that will move people from “poverty to prosperity.”

The bill would also allow people to qualify for transportation assistance benefits for 18 months, up from 12 months. It would allocate $500,000 for small emergency accounts, which families can use to cover for health care or education costs. It’s expected to cost $1.3 million plus $500,000 provided from the federal TANF block grant. Mayhew said the costs would be paid for by savings realized when the state imposed a five-year limit on TANF benefits in 2011.

A similar bill was introduced this year by Democratic Rep. Drew Gattine, co-chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee. Gattine’s bill would similarly disregard all of recipients’ earned income for two months. But unlike LePage’s bill, his would apply to those who work less than 20 hours a week.

Chris Hastedt, public policy director for Maine Equal Justice Partners, which supports Gattine’s bill, said she’s concerned that LePage’s bill would hurt those who are working less than 20 hours a week and doesn’t include other important provisions in Gattine’s bill, like ensuring that child care assistance is provided retroactively to the date a recipient applied.

But she said the governor’s proposal shows that the two sides are willing to work together to find a solution to this issue.

“There is common ground, there’s opportunity and we need to grab that and run with it,” she said.

        Comments are not available on this story.

        filed under: