Democrats propose welfare reform, but are they serious?

Democrats in Augusta recently made a big show of launching a welfare reform proposal. They seemingly moved to embrace a number of ideas Republicans have tried to pass before, including banning the purchase of such items and services as alcohol, lottery tickets, and tattoos.

However, coming as it is in an election year, one has to wonder about the sincerity of this proposals. Have Democrats truly done an about-face, recognizing after years of opposition that Mainers overwhelmingly want to fix the state’s welfare system? Or is it merely political shenanigans, designed to take a winning issue away from Republicans in advance of upcoming legislative elections?

Of course, this isn’t the first time that Democrats have attempted to make a half-hearted show of support for welfare reform. They’ve sponsored bills in the past that represented some progress on the issue, but they’ve rarely gone far enough with real reforms. More frequently, they’ve consistently fought their Republican colleagues on any serious attempt to make changes to the system — including as recently as last session, when they shut down a number of proposals on party-line votes in the House.

So, is it really reasonable to believe that Democrats are now more open-minded on this issue, even though their intransigence had the support of the press? No, it’s not.

Sen. Justin Alfond of Portland, the Senate Democratic leader. Ashley L. Conti | BDN

Sen. Justin Alfond of Portland, the Senate Democratic leader. Ashley L. Conti | BDN

After all, the only times there’s been any sort of bipartisan compromise this session have been when their hand has been forced, as with the tax conformity legislation and the bill to address the drug crisis. Here, there’s no impending crisis forcing the Democrats to act, so it’s likely this is a political maneuver — legislation introduced solely to serve as a bullet point on a palm card this fall. It may be their hope that merely introducing the bill gives them immunity to the charge that they are against welfare reform.

Unfortunately, the package would do more than simply ban frivolous purchases — which makes sense, because if Democrats really wanted to do that, they could have simply passed the legislation sponsored by Senate President Mike Thibodeau last session. Instead, they killed that legislation, then developed their own plan without consulting with Republicans. If they had, they would have known that the other, vague elements of their proposal — which would seem to be an expansion of government, rather than reform — would be a nonstarter with Republicans.

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick. Ben McCanna | BDN

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick. Ben McCanna | BDN

If Democrats were really interested in accomplishing something, they would have handled this legislation the same way they did other bipartisan accomplishments passed this session: by talking to their colleagues on the other side of the aisle. Their leadership would have met with Republican leadership and negotiated a package that both sides could support. Their go-it-alone approach lends even more credence to the theory that this is all just a political game rather than an attempt at governing.

Now, it may be that the Democrats are merely intending to use this bill as a starting point for a compromise that eventually emerges — but that’s difficult to believe. After all, even though it was their legislation, if anything really gets done on welfare reform this session, Republicans can rightfully take credit, as they’re the ones who have been pushing the issue for years.

It’s unlikely that any progress will be made on such a hot-button issue in an election year, especially when it might hurt the Democrats as much as help them, as some of their supporters will be furious at them for ceding any ground on the issue at all. Regardless of what happens with this latest push, it’s clear that Republicans are the ones who really want welfare reform in Maine, not Democrats.

Jim Fossel

About Jim Fossel

Originally from Alna, Jim Fossel has volunteered with a number of campaigns over the years, including for Peter Mills for Governor in 2006. He previously worked for U.S. Senator Susan Collins and House Republican Leader Josh Tardy.