As tax talks subside, some voices turn toward welfare reform

Good morning from Augusta, where you’re likely as bored of hearing the following as we are of writing it: Members of the Appropriations Committee continue to negotiate the budget as other committees plow through the remaining pile of bills with an eye toward clearing their plates by the end of the week.

That’s today.

The committees have done yeoman’s work toward that end, but a handful of bills will remain to be addressed after the long weekend ahead.The Judiciary and Health and Human Services committees both have work sessions scheduled today, including on Sen. Roger Katz’s bill to allow terminally ill patients to self-administer lethal drugs.

Both committees also have work scheduled for the day after Memorial Day. Several bills by Gov. Paul LePage regarding the election of constitutional officers are also still awaiting public hearings and work sessions in the State and Local Government Committee, though none have yet been scheduled.

The Appropriations Committee, which came on mic last night to plow through a few dozen lines of the Department of Agriculture’s budget, still has much more work to do.

The Daily Brief will be taking a break on Monday for Memorial Day, but we’ll see you again on Tuesday morning. In the meantime, make sure you subscribe so you don’t miss it when it comes. Enjoy the grilling this weekend. — Mario Moretto.

Tax talks subside, but welfare reform noise continues

While the likelihood of meaningful tax reform looking slimmer by the day, we’re hearing more from some corners about another old State House chestnut: Welfare reform.

While the tax talk has dominated most of the session, several bills aimed at cutting or altering several public assistance programs have also worked their way through the Legislature, with several of them beaten back by majority Democrats at the committee level or in the House.

Republicans and the LePage administration are growing more vocal in their frustration.

Yesterday, DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew and the Maine GOP both took shots at Democrats’ refusal to pass their favored welfare reform initiatives.

Of the party-line vote on the Health and Human Services Committee to defeat LePage’s bill to drug test TANF recipients, Mayhew said: “We cannot sit back and turn a blind eye to the drug abuse in this state, the misuse of taxpayer funds to purchase drugs through this cash benefit, and the fundamental lack of commitment that such drug abuse represents to the federally mandated employment goals of TANF. The proposed legislation is an opportunity to ensure that those with a drug abuse problem are identified and given the opportunity to enter substance abuse treatment.”

In an email blast, Maine GOP executive director Jason Savage asked recipients to sign on as a “welfare reform citizen co-sponsor,” because “Democrats aren’t serious about welfare reform.”

(These sign-up sheets, for what it’s worth, are less about any particular policy and more about partisan voter list-building which, in the end, is about fundraising. But the choice of message — welfare reform, in this case — shows that for the GOP, it’s still an issue that resonates. Remember last year’s election?)

Anyway, the carping about Democrats’ refusal to take a look at welfare doesn’t tell the whole story. While there have been several GOP reform efforts that Democrats have opposed, there’s been an appetite for others.

There’s still room for Democrats and Republicans, including the governor, to come together on a bill to level the “welfare cliff,” a move both parties support. And a Lewiston Democrat has proposed a bill to limit the amount of cash TANF funds that can be withdrawn from an ATM, a move Republicans support as well.

Then there’s Republican Sen. Roger Katz’s bill to ban the use of food stamps on junk food, which has the support of the Democratic chairman of the Agriculture Committee, and the Democratic floor leader in the House.

That’s not to say welfare reform is a slam-dunk by any means. But with Democrats seemingly more willing to look for areas of agreement than in the past (they remember last year’s election, too), it’s not a foregone conclusion that the above bills are destined for the scrap heap. — Mario Moretto.

Veto watch

Reading list

Happy Memorial Day weekend

I don’t know about all of you guys, but I’m looking forward to relaxing, hiking, grilling and maybe even lighting a few fireworks this three-day weekend. If you’re looking for something fun to occupy your time, look no further than this guide, by our own Emily Burnham. — Mario Moretto.

Mario Moretto

About Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and, now, in the State House. Mario left the BDN in 2015.