Independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler today unveiled a welfare reform plan that would require some former recipients with jobs to pay back part of their income. Cutler's plan also creates a tiered system so that benefits are reduced over time after someone finds a job, instead of being immediately cut off. The plan is already drawing fire from his opponents.
Cutler's plan would decrease fraud and abuse of welfare benefits by taking advantage of cutting edge technology available for benefit cards. He says the beefed-up cards would not be able to be used at prohibited locations, like liquor stores and strip clubs. He would also advance incentives such as the Earned Income Tax Credit for people receiving assistance to get a high school education and obtain skills needed by Maine employers.
And Cutler says he would also implement a tiered system that would allow recipients of governmental assistance to obtain jobs and advance in Maine's work force without experiencing the sudden drop in benefits that advocates for the poor refer to as the "cliff effect."
"This plan is all about doing three things," Cutler said. "It's all about doing a better job of dealing with fraud and abuse; secondly, providing incentives to get people off welfare and into the workforce; and third, to create a work force that's good for Maine's economy. This is a huge problem for Maine's economy - it is a drag on our economy. I know how to fix this economy and I know that a lot of it has to do with fixing the welfare system."
"Eliot Cutler is proposing some really good decent ideas here," says state Republican Party Chair Rick Bennett. "The problem is that Gov. LePage has already implemented most of them."
Bennett disputes what Cutler refers to as LePage's failures when it comes to welfare reform. Bennett says LePage has successfully cut unnecessary staff positions at DHHS, hired eight new welfare fraud investigators and made the unauthorized transfer or possession of EBT cards a Class D crime.
And Bennett says one of Cutler's plans includes expanding Medicaid benefits to 70,000 Mainers - a proposal that LePage says the state cannot afford.
"Eliot Cutler wishes to expand the Medicaid program, which is the largest welfare program in Maine, and, as we know, led to almost fiscal insolvency for the state of Maine by leaning on our hospitals. And Gov. LePage doesn't want to go down that road again," Bennett says.
Earlier this week, Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew announced that the LePage administration would crack down on convicted drug felons who continue to use illegal drugs while seeking state assistance. Those applicants seeking cash benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program will have to undergo drug testing if they want to receive those benefits.
That drug testing welfare reform policy has been a legal option for the LePage administration for three years, prompting some of his opponents to question why the Republican governor is rolling out the plan weeks before the general election. Mayhew denied that the policy was politically motivated.
"He was criticized for these being political moves when he first announced them, shortly after he took office," Mayhew says. "So it is disturbing that that is the allegation that continues to be thrown around."
Independent Eliot Cutler says it's not LePage's motives that frustrate him - it's his complete lack of action on welfare reform. "He has been sitting on his hands scoring political points when the opportunities arise and not solving Maine's problems," Cutler said. "He can't get it done. He can't solve the problem because he can't get along with anybody else. He won't listen to other people's ideas."
Not surprisingly, the Michaud campaign found little that is new or promising from Cutler or LePage. "Congressman Michaud is the only candidate in the race who can bring Republicans, Democrats and independents together to change what needs to be changed and fix the Department of Health and Human Services," says Michaud's spokeswoman Lizzy Reinholt.
Reinholt says DHHS has broken down during the LePage years, and that Michaud's plan for an independent Office of the Inspector General to monitor programs at DHHS offers a better approach to ferret out fraud and ensure program efficiency. Republicans have criticized that plan, saying the state already has an Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability to do just that.