Top Maine House lawmakers introduce bipartisan bill package to fight poverty

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AUGUSTA, Maine (WABI) - Democrats and Republicans don't always work in harmony at the State House.

But when they do, it can potentially lead to big change.

Paul Dwyer sat down with two of the highest ranking state lawmakers Tuesday to discuss their plans to fight child poverty in Maine.

With one in five kids not knowing when, or even if, their next meal is coming, lawmakers here in Augusta have decided to put party aside and try to find a solution for this problem affecting Maine's most vulnerable.

Speaker of the House Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, and Assistant House Republican Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, are introducing a bill package called "Invest in Tomorrow."

"We believe that there are no children in this state that we want living in poverty, and the basic issue here is that families and parents need to be able to be stable and provide a stable environment in order for those kids not to be hungry and not to be living in poverty," said Gideon.

"We need to be figuring out ways to better invest in our biggest asset in Maine, which is our people, and figure out policies on the public side of things that are going to be able to move folks out of generational poverty, break that wheel, and help move them into prosperity," said Stewart.

There are a lot of measures to help people go from receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) into higher paying jobs.

Here's some of what the two bills will do:

-Reduce the "benefits cliff" of coming off of TANF
-Increase Transitional Food Assistance
-Streamline eligibility for Transitional Medicaid
-Create framework for DHHS to track results
-Eliminate TANF's "gross income test," which currently is capped at about $12,000 per year for a family of three.

"By removing this gross income test, we make sure that a family of three who's making up to $18,000 per year is still able to access this benefit," said Gideon.

The bill package also puts a big emphasis on education as a way to get out of poverty by allowing GED hours to go toward TANF requirements and improving access to higher education for low-income parents.

"Education is the great equalizer," said Stewart. "That adage is certainly true, and true at all stages of education."

They both say that helping Mainers out of poverty is not a partisan issue.

"I don't see how any of us can look at the children around us and not feel like we need to do something when those children are living under any sort of stress or duress," said Gideon. "There is no child in this state that should be hungry, especially when there is something that we can do to change that."

"I come from the oldest county in the oldest state of the country, and yet I'm the youngest member of the Legislature," said Stewart. "And I think that there's a reason for that. I think that's because folks want to know that the next generation is going to be able to do something about what their future is going to look like, and I think that this is a great, and a pretty momentous first step towards that."