Janet Mills’ program to buy cars for welfare recipients forced into public hearing

Governor Janet Mills signs a piece of legislation while Speaker Sara Gideon and a crowd of legislators look on.

AUGUSTA – After more than 480 Mainers signed a petition calling on Maine DHHS to hold a public hearing on Governor Janet Mills’ plan, originally sponsored by Speaker Sara Gideon, to buy and then sell cars to welfare recipients, the state has relented and will now hold a public hearing.

Maine People Before Politics, a group that monitors the actions of Governor Janet Mills closely, launched the petition effort to force the public hearing after revealing some surprising details about the program.

Among the aspects of the program that caused major public outcry were the lack of enforcement in the program to enforce theft charges against recipients of the cars if they sold the car before paying it off, even if the car was valued above $10,000.

The program would spend up to $6 million essentially creating a ‘buy here, pay here’ auto dealership program run by the state. Recipients of the cars would pay no more than $2,700 to the state over a two-year period. That would include a $300 down payment broken into three monthly installments and monthly payments of about $100.

MPBP raised other concerns, including lack of quality controls in the program and lack of guidelines on the cost of the cars Maine would essentially subsidize to recipients with a $2,700 cost ceiling to the individual receiving the car.

A spokesperson for Governor Janet Mills responded to previous criticism of the program by arguing that the state would use federal dollars to fund the program. Critics respond that the money is still funded by taxpayers and with the state facing major challenges in the current economic crisis, we should set different priorities.

The program was initially conceptualized in a bill sponsored by Speaker Sara Gideon in the 2017-18 state budget, but Governor Paul LePage insisted on a legal sunset to the program and refused to fund it.

Under Speaker Sara Gideon’s proposal, L.D. 1475 introduced in April of 2017, the program would have been funded with $10 million instead of the current $6 million. Under Gideon’s original proposal, some recipients would not have been required to make payments. Gideon’s proposal would have functioned along the same basic lines, but would have also provided additional funding for the cost of registration, insurance and repairs.

Maine People Before Politics says more than 480 Mainers signed the petition demanding a public hearing over the July 4holiday weekend. The public hearing will take place virtually on August 10 beginning at 5pm.

The state will leave public comment open on the program until August 20.

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