Gov. LePage’s privatization scheme offers insight into his worldview

The Maine Sunday Telegram just broke the news that the LePage Administration is near to closing a deal to privatize the ASPIRE program, and the story left me wondering, yet again, about the governor’s state of mind.

No, I don’t mean that I think he’s drinking, or crazy; or at least, not that he isn’t the same sort of crazy that a lot of other people in public life are. Because why would people who hold the public weal in contempt choose to run for office if they weren’t some kind of crazy?

Who could look at our tattered social safety net, our battered infrastructure, our unsafe and unsettled public discourse, find them demoralizing, and then run, twice, for an office with, frankly, an unimpressive salary, just in order to make those demoralizing things worse?

What is the governor’s job?

A reporter asked me recently if I could explain the governor’s support from some of his reliable voters after his unhinged, racist meltdowns of the last several weeks. One idea I floated was that the support was determined by how voters interpret the job of governor. If you think the job of governor is to be the head of the executive branch, ensuring that the state government enforces state law appropriately, then it’s a huge problem when the governor holds those who write the laws in contempt, or even threatens them with physical violence. If you think the job of governor is to represent your state nationally and internationally, then he is clearly failing at that job when he makes himself a national punchline. If you think that the governor has a responsibility to protect the lives of the people of your state, and he tells the voters that people of color are Maine’s enemy in a shooting war, then his incompetence borders on the tragic. But if you think the governor’s job is to represent the feelings of people “like you,” to talk and emote like a member of the “silent majority” to which you think you belong, then Paul LePage’s violent self-pity and resentment might make you think he’s even better at his job than you once hoped.

I don’t know if that idea answered the reporter’s question, exactly, but it did pose a new one: what, precisely, does the governor think his job is? Perhaps the answer to that question might shed some light on the ASPIRE mystery. Following that clue takes us to the federal program of which our ASPIRE is just a part: TANF.

Vital aid

The story of Temporary Aid to Needy Families was grim long before Paul LePage became our governor.

TANF replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children after the passage of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act; the idea was to give states more flexibility in addressing the needs of their own citizens in poverty. Instead of the federal controls embedded in AFDC, TANF enabled state leadership to invest more in work support (such as child care), or to experiment with different forms of assistance. States were also empowered to set time limits on benefits. But many states went much further than that. In fact, once the economy entered hard times, or just when state voters approved referendums that limited tax increases, governors and legislators throughout the country moved TANF funding into other parts of their budgets, and often spent it in ways that didn’t address the needs of “needy families” at all. The Great Recession found many states with tattered social safety nets. In the aftermath, many elected officials responsible for the misdirected funds blamed the people who relied upon TANF, and then cut social welfare spending even more.

Some states, however, managed to expand on TANF. Maine has the ASPIRE program, Additional Support for People in Retraining and Employment, to help people with TANF benefits find work. ASPIRE is a logical out-growth of the TANF concept; if you’re going to build uncertainty into the social safety net, changing the requirements and rules from state to state, empowering states to cut the amount of time that people can receive benefits (not to mention siphoning off as much as 34% of the funding), then you at least have to try to aid your clients’ shift into the workforce.  Otherwise, you wind up with a population that has neither work nor state assistance. And although the governor has been hostile to public support for that part of the public that needs it most, he has usually spoken in favor of moving Maine’s unemployed back into the work force.

Mismanagement and privatization

But now, the administration is closing in on a deal to hand ASPIRE over to a private conglomerate, Fedcap, whose high administrative costs are currently endangering their no-bid contract to provide addiction recovery services in New Hampshire. Again, one has to ask why either the governor or the Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner, Mary Mayhew, would take this gamble.

Back in January, the administration suggested that something along these lines might be necessary, because of federal fines due to our low level of work participation among TANF clients. The fines amount to roughly $29 million, but, according to the federal government, no fines have been levied against our state yet, and, indeed, it’s possible for the state to avoid paying them altogether. Liz Schott, of the Center on Budget and Policy Proposals, told the Press Herald that all a state needs to do to avoid fines in a situation like this is file a “corrective action plan,” demonstrating a willingness to work on the problem. That will is apparently lacking in the administration, though. (Perhaps the governor and the commissioner are the ones with the low level of work participation.)

Instead of filing a plan with the federal government, Maine is apparently going to spend $62.5 million on a contract with Fedcap, a company that has paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle discrimination cases in the last three years alone. Even for a governor who spent $700,000 to uncover 45 potential cases of welfare fraud, that’s a remarkably irresponsible use of taxpayer money. And even if Fedcap did not have a troubling record of discrimination claims, a private organization will only be less answerable to the voters and their representatives, while nothing in the recent history of privatization suggests that it will be either cheaper or more efficient than the programs we already have in place.

Which brings me back to my original question. What does the governor think a governor’s job is? We can add the ASPIRE clue to many others. He has threatened resources devoted to the neediest families in the state over and over again, whether by labeling refugees as “illegal aliens” and attacking the cities where they live, or by interfering with their TANF funding. His DHHS commissioner once endangered $9 million in federal dollars because she wanted to force the U.S. Department of Agriculture to tell her if Maine’s population in need was buying Mountain Dew. More recently, Governor LePage has taken money directed for needy minors and given it to other parts of the population that he has decided are more worthy, in violation of federal law. And now he is taking his war on public assistance for our neediest neighbors to the next level.

Well, the governor and his supporters have their view of what his job entails. If yours differs, make your opinion known. For starters, a hearing on this proposal in Augusta has been scheduled for Wednesday. It’s not yet clear where or when or how the public can be heard. Details to follow.

Photo via Andi Parkinson.

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