In my column in the Press Herald two weeks ago, I wrote about how Governor LePage had advanced a surprisingly compassionate piece of public assistance policy during his 2010 campaign and how that proposal somehow completely disappeared once he gained office.
His original plan was for assistance programs to be extended to cover people all the way up from current cut-off levels to a living wage, with reductions in support coming in five equal steps in order to help people find their feet after being knocked down by a tough economy.
As LePage stated plainly a letter he wrote to the Piscataquis County Republican Caucus at the time: “I propose implementing a five tier income system beginning at the poverty level ending at an established living wage.” I could point to a half dozen other video clips and statements where he says the same thing.
Once in office, however, LePage instead proposed and the Republican-controlled legislature implemented only the series of cuts and restrictions that he had also championed during the campaign. The result has been devastating for Maine’s poor, with more people who have been kicked off Temporary Assistance for Needing Families becoming homeless than managing to find work, according a recent study.
Last week, Representative Amy Volk of Scarborough wrote a letter to the editor claiming I was entirely wrong, that his full proposal for a tiered system had been put forward and that she had supported it. She wrote in her letter that she “cosponsored a bill to implement that very welfare reform idea of LePage’s” and that I would have known about it if I had done “a little research,” before writing my column.
I’m always up for more research. Let’s hit the books and see what Volk might be talking about.
Volk didn’t mention which bill she was referring to, but according to legislative records, she didn’t co-sponsor any bills to change the benefit structure for public assistance programs during the 2011-2012 legislative session, when both she and LePage were first elected and Republicans controlled Maine’s government. During that session Volk did support bills to weaken Maine’s child labor laws, send public money to private charter schools and gut Maine’s Kid-Safe Products Act, but nothing to help bring struggling Mainers up to a living wage.
This alone pretty much proves my point, but let’s keep digging.
After some push-back on Twitter, Volk and House Republican Spokesperson David Sorensen claimed that the legislation she was referencing was LD 1064, introduced in 2013.
This bill, titled “Resolve, To Establish the Task Force on Independence from Public Assistance,” however, makes no mention of a five-tiered system or a living wage at all. Instead, it proposed the creation of a task force that would make some unspecified future recommendations about public assistance.
The sole connection to any kind of similar policy is in testimony to the committee from the bill’s sponsor, Representative Mel Newendyke, wherein he referenced a bill from the 2009-2010 legislative session (before LePage and Volk were elected) that he says would have “put a five-tier transition system into place.”
The only thing Newendyke could reasonably have been referring to from that session was legislation introduced by Rep. Rich Cebra titled “An Act To Enact a 5-point Welfare Reform Program,” which has no tiered system or living wage provisions and would have actually cut benefits in a way similar to what LePage eventually did.
Both bills contain the number five, but that’s where any similarities to LePage’s neglected proposal end.
Just to be sure, I spoke to my own Representative, Drew Gattine of Westbrook, who sits on the Health and Human Services Committee. He confirmed that a system of steps up to a living wage was absolutely not what Newendyke or Volk proposed.
“I sat in the committee and we talked about these issues very carefully and in great detail,” said Gattine. “At no point was the conversation from the people that sponsored this about getting people up to a living wage.”
So, either Volk was confused then or she’s lying now. It’s very clear that neither Gov. LePage nor Rep. Volk, made any effort to implement the kind of system LePage proposed on the campaign trail. As soon as they gained office, the plan was shelved. Ideology replaced practicality and compassion gave way to cuts.