FARMINGDALE — Gov. Paul LePage said Tuesday during his weekly town meeting tour that he is moving forward with the privatization of the state’s ASPIRE program because Maine is failing to meet federal work requirements for the program’s participants.

The move would eliminate about 70 state jobs.

ASPIRE is a welfare-to-work program that is linked to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which distributes cash benefits. It is designed to help Mainers identify and develop their employability skills and ultimately, find jobs. Participants in the program must meet federal work participation requirements but haven’t dating back to at least 2007, which according to the LePage administration makes Maine vulnerable to federal penalties.

Opponents have argued that the fines have never been called due and that the federal government has been satisfied by the state making progress.

In response to a question from the audience, LePage said his administration has twice tried to eliminate some exemptions Maine has in statute to the work rules requirement, but the legislation failed.

“We’ve been asking and asking the Legislature to change the law since we’ve been here,” said LePage. “They’re not doing it.”

Contracting out the service was announced last month by the Department of Health and Human Services in a press release, but according to Rep. Gay Grant, D-Gardiner, who was at Tuesday’s town hall and who serves on the Appropriations Committee, the details of the contract have not been shared with lawmakers. She said Maine is among the leaders nationally in its work rules requirements.

Liz Schott, a TANF expert who works for the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, told the Bangor Daily News in 2014 that Maine will likely never have to pay the fines if it continues to make progress.

DHHS has said that it is in the midst of issuing requests for proposals and hopes to have the contract outsourced by some time this summer.

The conversation about the ASPIRE program was spurred by a woman in the audience Tuesday who works for the program.

“I’m just concerned for myself and my colleagues,” she said.

LePage’s appearance at Hall-Dale High School is part of a months-long statewide tour during which the governor is pushing his four policy priorities: Reducing the income tax, reforming welfare, fighting drug addiction and reducing student debt. LePage struck a conversational tone.

“I am not doing these town hall meetings for the sake of telling you what you want to hear,” he said. “I’m not here trying to get your support. I’m trying to tell the people of the state of Maine what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.”

The public forum followed a busy two days for the governor, starting on Monday when he released the annual State of the State address, which amounted largely to a diatribe against what he characterized as a socialist, paralyzed Legislature, in written form. On Tuesday, LePage found himself the subject of national headlines again after a radio appearance on WVOM during which he referenced comments from last month about drug dealers impregnating Maine’s “white girls.”

He insisted comments like that are what it takes to make the Legislature accomplish anything.

“I had to go scream at the top of my lungs about black dealers coming in and doing the things that they’re doing to our state,” said LePage. “I had to scream about guillotines and those types of things before they were embarrassed into giving us a handful of DEA agents. … It takes outrageous comments and outrageous actions to get them off the dime.”

Lawmakers of both parties agreed to LePage’s plan to find funding for 10 new investigators for the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency — weeks before the “white girls” comment — and everyone in the Legislature except for one House Republican voted in favor of the measure.

Also on Tuesday, LePage made a splash when he rescinded his nomination of Dr. William Beardsley for education commissioner — temporarily, he said — because of what he called political games by Democrats.

There was no mention of any of those issues, except for some talk about the drug agents, during Tuesday’s forum.


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