AUGUSTA — A Gov. Paul LePage plan aimed at moving more Mainers from welfare to work by allowing them to more gradually transition from public support as they gain income got a lukewarm reception from an organization that advocates for the state’s poor Tuesday.

During a news conference earlier in the day, LePage rolled out legislation that seeks to eliminate the so-called “welfare cliff” that hamstrings individuals who earn a little more than state and federal eligibility requirements for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

LePage’s bill, sponsored by state Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, and state Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, also extends transportation benefits for TANF recipients who have found work for six months and creates a new program that’s meant to teach TANF recipients basic financial management skills while creating family savings programs. Brakey is Senate chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, which will hold a public hearing on LePage’s bill in the days ahead.

LePage’s legislation, LD 1402, joins another bill on the topic, LD 1268, sponsored by state Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, House chairman of the committee.

Gattine’s bill was before the committee Tuesday. Supporters of his measure said it does more to meaningfully address the welfare cliff than LePage’s offer.

LePage said Tuesday he knew there were going to be competing measures on the issue, but he noted that meant there was likely room for real change and compromise to actually push forward reforms that both Democrats and Republicans have been talking about for years.

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“In my mind, it’s not about competing against each other but to have a full debate on the whole process,” LePage said. He said his bill gives Democrats interested in working the matter out some parameters on where his administration stands.

“I really hope that this will enlighten them on how far we want to go,” LePage said. He said his efforts to make Maine’s TANF system abide by the federal 60-month lifetime limit on benefits had created savings in the program that would allow his initiative to move forward.

His creation of a tiered system of benefits, along with the transportation and savings programs, will cost the state roughly $1.8 million a year, according to figures provided by Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew.

But supporters of Gattine’s plan said Tuesday they like some of what LePage is offering but were critical of the way his plan would more dramatically penalize TANF recipients who do not work full time.

“Many people cannot meet those requirements,” Christine Hastedt of Maine Equal Justice Partners said. “There are lots and lots of people trying to find full-time work who cannot.”

Under the LePage plan, those who are only able to find part-time work face a greater risk of losing their other benefits, Hastedt said.

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But, Mayhew said, Maine is already facing more than $20 million in federal fines for failing to require adequate work participation rates for TANF families, and Gattine’s bill would exacerbate that issue. She said the LePage proposal requires TANF recipients to be working at least 20 hours a week.

Hastedt said LePage’s bill also would do nothing to eliminate other cliffs in the welfare system, including one that treats families with two parents differently from single-parent families despite identical income levels.

Single-parent families receive more resources, which often forces families to split up, Hastedt said.

She said Gattine’s bill would more quickly allow TANF parents who go to work get child care assistance and would make that assistance retroactive to when a parent went to work.  

Still, LePage said, despite differences between Republicans and Democrats on exactly how to fix the cliff problem, there is general consensus it should be fixed.

“There are very few items that come up that both parties will be talking about in a positive manner and this here — both the Democrats and Republicans agree and see opportunities to improve the system,” LePage said. 

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