State, Workforce Officials Clash At Meeting Over Job Training Funds

Dec 4, 2017

Tempers flared Friday between local economic development directors and state officials over changes to state policies, as well as the governor’s refusal to release more than $8 million in federal job training funds.

Federal funds are supposed to be distributed to local workforce boards across the state, which work with service providers to train tens of thousands of job seekers. Currently, less than 40 percent of the funds to local boards go to direct job training and tuition. Much of the rest goes toward case management and counseling.

But at a state workforce board meeting on Friday, state officials proposed a policy change: for those local boards to increase the share of the money that goes to job training, up to 60 percent.

Department of Labor Commissioner John Butera says the change is needed to help businesses get more workers into jobs.

“And that’s what the governor is trying to do — give people skills,” he says. “Give people transferable skills that they can have with them for their lifetime.”

Fred Webber, the state workforce board chair, says he agrees with the new 60 percent goal. But officials with some of Maine’s local workforce boards clearly don’t.

“Let’s be real. And stop treating us like second-class citizens,” says Michael Bourret, executive director of Coastal Counties Workforce Inc., based in Brunswick.

Bourret says the proposed goals aren’t workable and would limit the ability of career centers and other providers to help job seekers who need help with serious issues, including substance abuse.

Local officials also lamented that currently, no other state in the country was putting such a high percentage of federal funds toward job training.

Bourret says the policy shift reflects a lack of communication between the state and those who connect with real people on the local level.

“A lot of us have worked years in this system and loved this system,” Bourret says. “So don’t act like you’re the only ones with any damn goals.”

After hours of deliberation and four votes, the board agreed on a compromise from Republican State Sen. Amy Volk that would gradually phase in the new budget requirements over the next few years and allow some services, such as case management, to be classified under job training.

But it’s still not clear what’s going to happen with the more than $8 million in federal job training funds for this year that Gov. Paul LePage has withheld since September, after the U.S. Department of Labor repeatedly denied his request to eliminate either the state or local workforce boards.

In October, Coastal Counties Workforce Inc. sued LePage and Butera, seeking the release of the funds. That litigation is still ongoing.

Some local officials are optimistic that the new agreement could lead to better communication between the state and local boards. Antoinette Mancusi, the deputy director for Coastal Counties Workforce Inc., hopes it could mean an end to the impasse.

“I’m personally hopeful that the resolution will allow for the release of the funds that are being held by the governor,” she says.

But Joanna Russell, the executive director of the Northeastern Workforce Development Board, based in Bangor, isn’t so sure.

“So while this is an advisory board, and it held a healthy conversation today, we’re not sure what that means in the end with Gov. LePage, and how he chooses to move forward with the decisions that were made today,” Russell says. “That’s very relevant to this whole process.”

A spokesperson for the Maine Department of Labor didn’t return a request for comment.

This story was originally published Dec. 1, 2017 at 5:49 p.m. ET.