Gov. Janet Mills’ program to buy cars for welfare recipients nears final approval

Gov. Janet Mills signs a bill into law surrounded by lamakers, including Sara Gideon. Gideon originally introduced the controversial program to buy cars for welfare recipients that Governor Mills is on the verge of enacting.

AUGUSTA – A program originally created by Speaker Sara Gideon that was due to sunset without ever being funded is on the verge of being put into full effect by Governor Janet Mills later this week. That program, which would buy cars newer than 2015 and less than 70,000 miles for Mainers who receive welfare benefits in Maine, has now been through Maine’s public hearing process but faces strong opposition from many corners of the state.

Originally dubbed “Working Cars for Working Families” when sponsored by Speaker Sara Gideon in 2017 as part of her “LIFT” package, the program would allow select Mainers who qualify for other welfare benefits to receive a car that is 2015 or newer or with less than 70,000 miles for a down payment of $300 (paid in $150 installments) plus a $100 per month payment for two years.

The program has faced withering criticism for lax rules that do not provide criminal penalties for recipients of cars if the car is sold before paid off. The rules of the program also require that the state of Maine turn over the title of the car to the recipient within 90 days, although the nominal “payments” for the car continue for two years.

Maine People Before Politics, a group that closely monitors state policy, has asked Mainers to weigh in one more time in a last ditch effort to persuade Gov. Janet Mills to pull back on the program.

“The Mills Administration should not be rolling out this poorly developed, complex welfare program during the middle of a global pandemic and a state budget crisis,” said MPBP in the post.

They also urged Mainers to weigh in before 5pm on Thursday, August 20.

“The deadline to send your comments on ‘Working Cars for Working Families’ is 5 p.m. on Thursday, August 20, 2020. On our MPBP our web page, we’ve posted all the information needed to submit public comments to DHHS,” says the post, linking to a page with info telling Mainers to email Julian Baer, , Senior Program Manager – TANF/ASPIRE, Department of Health and Human Services, Office for Family Independence.

MPBP previously forced Maine DHHS to hold a public hearing on the program by organizing more than 480 Mainers to sign a petition demanding a public hearing this summer.

Governor Janet Mills is so eager to roll out the program that she actually put the program out to bid before the program had a public hearing.

Among other things MPBP and others are criticizing the program for are:

– The program can provide brand-new or recently used vehicles that must get at least 25mpg. These cars do not have to be bought from Maine’s new or used car dealers.

– The program must transfer the titles to participants within 90 days of them receiving the vehicle.

– After 24 months and paying about $2,700 into a set-aside fund, participants own their car outright and monthly payments end.

– If the person sells the car without DHHS’s authorization during those 24 months, the person will not be charged with car theft, only welfare fraud.

– Used cars must be model year 2015 or newer with fewer than 70,000 miles.

– The program can provide cars of any type and any value to participants.

– Cars must be covered by a two-year maintenance warranty that will assure the car can pass state inspection and excludes only tire and wiper wear and damage from neglect, vandalism or accidents.

– The purchase price of the cars and the 2-year maintenance warranty are paid for by the $6 million welfare program, not the participant.

– The participant will pay DHHS about $100 a month to use the car along with a $300 dollar down payment. These payments go into a fund that is reserved to cover their taxes, inspections and insurance—not to repay the value of the car.

– Participants have to promise to use the car “primarily” to get to work, not to let others drive the vehicle, and not to use it for illegal activities.

The program was originally introduced by House Speaker Sara Gideon in 2017. While Democrats have sought to claim it was a product of the LePage Administration, Governor Paul LePage opposed and never funded the program, but insisted on a “sunset” provision to allow the program to expire.

Under Gideon’s original 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.

Under the program being pushed forward by Governor Mills, the funds paid in by the recipient of the car go toward covering taxes, inspection and insurance instead of repaying the value of the car.

Testifying in favor of her original proposal, Gideon said, “We must seize this opportunity to do right by Maine children today and tomorrow and by Maine taxpayers. We must do better to put us all on a path to a prosperous future.”

Maine Senate President Troy Jackson was a co-sponsor of the original proposal.

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