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A pilot program in Maine is looking to help low-income people find and keep jobs by connecting them with reliable transportation to and from work. It will be funded by a federal block grant through the TANF benefits program.
Furnishing cars is one of the options, but they are not free. Recipients who sell their cars for cash would be punished through the welfare system, and law enforcement could also get involved.
There’s no public hearing scheduled for the state’s proposed rules, but one could still take place if enough people request it. There was a public hearing in 2017 when the program was first introduced as part of a legislative package that didn’t pass.
A widespread Facebook post blasts the Democratic governor of Maine for moving ahead with a program to help certain welfare recipients secure reliable transportation to and from work.
The June 17 post says Gov. Janet Mills is putting tax dollars toward "getting into the car sales business." It comes from Maine People Before Politics, a nonprofit research organization that lists former Gov. Paul LePage, Mills’ Republican predecessor, as its honorary chairperson.
The Mills administration is "using taxpayer money to buy cars for those on welfare, without a public hearing on the rules," the post says in all caps. "If someone on welfare sells the car for cash without the state’s approval, the rules don’t allow the state to prosecute them for car theft."
The post is not fully accurate. It was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)
The pilot program, Working Cars for Working Families, was authorized as part of a budget passed by the state Legislature and signed by LePage in 2017. LePage never moved forward with it, despite the budget’s specification that rules be adopted in the 2017-18 state fiscal year.
The program is meant to provide affordable transportation to people who receive benefits from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program or certain other programs. The goal is to help them travel to and from work so that they can hold onto a stable job.
Maine People Before Politics gets many details about the program right in its Facebook post, which is several paragraphs long. But its all-caps, top-line description gives the impression that the Mills administration is ramming through rules for a new initiative, and that the initiative will give welfare recipients free cars they can easily sell for a quick buck. That’s misleading.
According to the proposed rules for the program, the state Department of Health and Human Services will work to connect eligible, low-income Mainers with transportation to and from work.
The rules were posted June 3, and the department is accepting public comments through July 5. Department spokesperson Jackie Farwell said the program will likely kick in by the fall.
The rules say that under the program, the department can furnish "purchased or donated vehicles to participants" or connect them to public transportation, private transportation, car shares, ride services, shuttle services or driving instruction and education.
Funding for the program is capped at $6 million and comes from a federal TANF block grant, so federal tax money is involved.
There are several rules that determine eligibility and how the program will operate if a person qualifies for a car.
In addition to meeting financial eligibility requirements, for example, applicants must prove they have "a reasonable likelihood of obtaining or retaining sustainable employment by participating," meaning they have a job, have one lined up or are likely to get one soon.
Applicants must also show that they lack the transportation that they need to hold the job. They can’t qualify if they own a functioning vehicle, live with an adult who owns one or have access to public transportation.
People who get a car through the program must commit to using it primarily to commute to work and agree that they won’t sell or trade it, allow other household members to drive it or break any laws while using it. They must keep it in good condition and conduct routine maintenance.
The Maine People Before Politics post’s claim that Mills is "using taxpayer money to buy cars for those on welfare" could be misleading, said Chris Hastedt, a senior policy adviser at the nonprofit Maine Equal Justice, a legal aid and economic justice organization.
"These cars are not ‘free,’ despite the implication," Hastedt said. "In fact, it is the participants themselves that are buying the cars."
The program as proposed requires people receiving cars to make a $300 down payment and pay the Department of Health and Human Services a $100 monthly installment for two years. The Maine People Before Politics post notes this in a later paragraph.
Participants must also be able to "pay all expenses associated with owning the vehicle," including insurance, taxes and costs needed to ensure the car passes inspection.
After 24 months of payments, those who have satisfied all requirements can graduate from the program and keep the cars.
Julie Rabinowitz, director of policy and communication at Maine People Before Politics, said the state could wind up eating costs, because the rules don’t put a price cap on the cars provided.
"Under these rules, a person could end up owning a $10,000 — or even $30,000-plus — car for a total of $2,700 in two years if they are working," Rabinowitz said.
The Facebook post also suggests that the program is being introduced suddenly and with no accountability in the form of a public hearing.
The original text of the failed bill noted that the period between 2017 and 2022 was meant to be a "pilot period," Hastedt said. The version passed in the budget said it would end in July 2022.
"It’s a pilot program," Farwell said, adding that a report would be made to the Legislature in 2022.
There is currently no public hearing scheduled, according to a notice from the Department of Health and Human Services. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be one, Farwell said.
"A public hearing on the proposed rules would be held if requested by five interested persons," she said. There was a public hearing in 2017 for the broader, never-passed legislation related to child poverty, she said, and more than 50 people testified as part of that hearing.
One person testified about a similar program after which Maine’s was modeled, Hastedt said.
The Facebook post also claims that participants who sell their cars without authorization will not be charged with theft.
The rules say selling a state-furnished car will be punished as an "intentional program violation," and that the seller must pay back a cost equal to the car’s value at the time it was provided.
Rabinowitz said such a sale would amount to "stealing the full value of the car from the state," and trying to recover that value through the welfare system’s rules would not be as effective as allowing for prosecution.
But Hastedt told us intentional program violations actually "can involve criminal prosecution for fraud, depending on the facts of the case."
The state Department of Health and Human Services "intends to make referrals to law enforcement when appropriate," Farwell added.
A Facebook post said the Mills administration is "using taxpayer money to buy cars for those on welfare, without a public hearing on the rules. If someone on welfare sells the car for cash without the state’s approval, the rules don’t allow the state to prosecute them for car theft."
The pilot program is rooted in a budget passed years ago and will be financed using a federal TANF block grant, meaning tax dollars are at play. Other details in the post’s paragraphs-long description of the program are mostly accurate, as well.
The program allows the state to furnish cars as one of the transportation aid options. But the cars are not totally free to those who get them, and participants who violate the terms of the program by selling their cars could still be referred to law enforcement.
Plus, while there’s no public hearing currently on the books for the state’s proposed rules, public comment is being accepted through July 5, and a hearing could still take place if enough people request it. There was also a public hearing in 2017, when the program was first introduced as part of a separate legislative package that didn’t pass.
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Facebook post, June 17, 2020
Maine Examiner, "Gov. Mills looks to ram through $6M welfare program to buy cars, lax rules criticized," June 21, 2020
WGAN on SoundCloud, "Julie Rabinowitz- Part 2," June 20, 2020
State of Maine, "An Act Making Unified Appropriations and Allocations for the Expenditures of State Government, General Fund and Other Funds and Changing Certain Provisions of the Law Necessary to the Proper Operations of State Government for the Fiscal Years Ending June 30, 2018 and June 30, 2019," July 4, 2017
128th Maine Legislature, First Regular Session, "An Act To Reduce Child Poverty by Leveraging Investments in Families Today," 2017
Email exchange with John Fitzgerald, professor of economics at Bowdoin College, June 24, 2020
Email interview with Jackie Farwell, director of communications for the State of Maine Department of Health and Human Services, June 25, 2020
Email interview with Julie Rabinowitz, director of policy and communication at Maine People Before Politics, June 25, 2020
Email interview with Chris Hastedt, senior policy adviser at Maine Equal Justice, June 25, 2020
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