AUGUSTA – Governor Janet Mills is moving forward with controversial plan to buy cars for Maine welfare recipients at a cost of about $6 million. The cost and lax rules for the program are drawing criticism, as well as the Mills Administration pushing the spending through while the Maine Legislature is shut down and public hearings are forbidden.
According to the non-profit Maine People Before Politics, the six million program is being launched without a public hearing. They say the rules were announced by the Mills administration on June 3 and will go into effect after July 5 without a public hearing.
MPBP says the existence of the program is set to expire in 2022 and the Mills administration is rushing to spend the money before that expiration.
“Instead of seeing the program end date of 2022 and the current crisis as a good reasons not to divert DHHS’s attention and resources by having to manage a car leasing and ownership program, the Mills Administration has taken up the challenge to get that $6 million spent on cars in the next 30 months,” said MPBP in a statement.
Under the program, the state of Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services would buy the cars, then transfer the title to the individual receiving the car. That person would sign an agreement that they would perform routine maintenance, not drink and drive, not sell or trade the vehicle and a few other rules.
As Maine People Before Politics points out, however, the proposal from Gov. Mills lacks in serious enforcement.
Among other things MPBP is critical of, they say, “If the person sells the car without DHHS’s authorization, the person will not be charged with theft. Instead, DHHS “shall pursue an intentional program violation when a participant has knowingly failed to return the vehicle upon the Department’s demand or has sold or traded the vehicle.”
An intentional program violation could allow DHHS to attempt to recover some funds against the value of the car. Although that possibility might exist, Gov. Mills record as Attorney General was rife with instances of refusing to prosecute various violations of the rules of Maine’s welfare programs.
Program participants are also supposed to pay for the maintenance of the car out of the earnings they gain from owning the car instead of their welfare benefits, but it is unclear how that could be enforced.
They are also required to make a $100 monthly payment on the car, along with a $300 down payment which will be made in three $100 installments. Taxpayers would foot the bill for additional costs and payments for the purchase of the car.
If a program participant goes 24 months without violating the rules, they are given the car outright, with no additional payments required, regardless of the value of the car.
That arrangement could be quite costly, when calculating the overall cost of even older serviceable used vehicles versus the maximum payout of program participants at just $2,700 over a two-year period.
The program has no guidelines or rules around how DHHS will acquire the cars, the condition of the cars or other requirements. MPBP says Maine DHHS is looking to hire an organization to run the program.
The program was passed by the Maine Legislature under Gov. Paul LePage, but the former Governor did not fund the program and insisted on putting sunset on the program to make it harder for a future administration to fund it.
MPBP is urging Maine people to weigh in on the program through the DHHS public comment portal before the program goes into effect on July 5.