AUGUSTA — A bill by the state’s House Republican leader to require able-bodied Mainers to show they have applied for three jobs before receiving welfare benefits could be killed even before the Legislature reconvenes in January.
Republicans in the State House have made clear that welfare reform will be their top priority in the truncated legislative session that begins in January, and have positioned themselves to make the issue a key campaign topic in 2014.
But Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said Friday that he expects Democrats to kill his bill during Wednesday’s meeting of the Legislative Council, a body composed of the top lawmakers in the House and Senate that includes six Democrats and four Republicans.
The council is responsible for deciding which bills will move forward to the full Legislature. The second session is reserved for bills held over from the first session, budgetary bills and “emergency” bills, though the council has wide discretion in determining what is or isn’t pressing enough to pass muster.
“Bills like this provide taxpayers, I believe, with a feeling that we’re being good stewards of their taxpayer dollars,” Fredette said Monday. But, he said, “Democrats have taken a position where they want to expand the welfare state here in Maine. … Speaker [Mark] Eves in particular has made it very clear that he did not support this bill, did not support the concept of it.”
Democrats had signaled their opposition to the bill, which was characterized by Eves, D-North Berwick, as an unnecessary hurdle for Mainers in need. They also noted that the targeted program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, already contains a job-search requirement for beneficiaries.
Fredette was also discouraged after the Office of the Revisor of Statutes, the nonpartisan body charged with screening the hundreds of bills proposed by lawmakers each session, tagged his bill as potentially violating the Legislature’s Joint Rule 217, which prevents the same bill from being introduced twice during one two-year legislative term.
The revisor noted that a bill proposed and defeated last year by Rep. Paulette Beaudoin, D-Biddeford, would have required current TANF recipients to “work with town officials and municipal officers to seek meaningful employment” and either work or volunteer while receiving benefits.
Fredette said his bill and Beaudoin’s were not similar enough to violate the rule, and said he was “confused” by the revisor’s note.
Eves, however, said his opposition to Fredette’s bill was decided “on the merits,” and has little to do with its similarities to Beaudoin’s failed bid at welfare reform. He said the bid to tie a job search to TANF applications is just “election-year politics.”
“The best anti-poverty program is a job, we all know that,” he said. “But if Rep. Fredette were serious, he’d recognize that what he’s proposing will only increase homelessness and make it harder for struggling families.”
If Republicans have made welfare reform their top priority for the upcoming session, Democrats have put equal weight behind a renewed push to expand Medicaid to roughly 70,000 Mainers under a provision of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Under the act, the expansion would be fully funded by the federal government for the first three years and whittled down to 90 percent after that.
Republicans have said the expansion would cost the state millions. The effort was approved by the Legislature last year, but vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage. Fredette noted the irony that his bill had been flagged for a potential violation of Rule 217, while Democrats have said they plan to bring Medicaid expansion before lawmakers again in January.
“That bill got vetoed, it didn’t pass, and it should not come back before the Legislature next year,” he said. “The only way that it will is if the Democrats violate their own rules. That’s very troubling if it happens.”
Eves and Senate President Justin Alfond wouldn’t say whether they believed the second go-round for Medicaid expansion violated legislative rules, but stressed that the Legislative Council was the ultimate authority on what bills would be introduced. The rule does allow a bill to return if two-thirds of the Legislature votes to give it a second life.
Alfond said expansion meets the criteria of “emergency legislation.”
Failure to expand Medicaid “is hurting our state’s economy, hurting our health care outcomes,” he said. “That’s why I feel the health care expansion debate needs to be brought up. Whether we do it or not will be determined on Wednesday.”
As for Fredette’s bill, it may not be dead just yet: Gov. LePage may introduce legislation on his own, which would require the approval of the Legislative Council. Fredette said he is in communication with the governor’s office about potentially bringing his welfare reform bill forward if it is killed by the Legislative Council.