WASHINGTON -- At the Maine GOP convention on Sunday, Gov. Paul LePage (R) received an enthusiastic standing ovation from his fellow Republicans for saying that all able-bodied out-of-work welfare recipients need to "get off the couch" and go find employment.
LePage called on the state legislature to pass structural changes to welfare, saying, "Maine's welfare program is cannibalizing the rest of state government. To all you able-bodied people out there: Get off the couch and get yourself a job."
"I understand welfare because I lived it," he added. "I understand the difference between a want and a need. The Republican Party promised to bring welfare change. We must deliver on this promise."
LePage has been pushing so-called welfare reform for months, although Democrats have argued that his definition of the term is too broad, encompassing "everything from disability to MaineCare (Medicaid), which isn't welfare."
Mike Tipping, communications director for the Maine People's Alliance, said LePage's comments were "downright offensive to Maine people searching for work in a difficult economy, especially considering his embarrassing record of failing to invest in programs that create jobs and cutting assistance for the unemployed while at the same time giving massive new tax breaks to the wealthy."
Christine Hastedt, public policy director at Maine Equal Justice Partners, called them "a gross insult to working people who get up every day and become discouraged by the end of the day, because there's not a job for them."
"We talk to people every day," said Hastedt. "There are not enough jobs for the people who want them. There aren't enough hours in the jobs for people who need them. These are jobs that don't provide health care, and certainly don't provide child care. Those are services that people need to get even the jobs that they could get. Nevertheless, he's cutting those safety net benefits that make it possible for people to work."
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett took issue with the criticisms that the governor is not doing enough to help unemployed Mainers get back to work. "We agree on one thing, and that is, we continue to face a struggling economy," she said.
"However, Maine has improved its business climate under the leadership of Governor LePage despite the constant rhetoric from his opponents. In fact, In 2011, job creators pledged more than $99 million in anticipated investment in Maine businesses, which will likely lead to 1164 jobs. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics from January 2011 to March 2012, the Maine economy grew by 3,000 jobs. The governor has also invested a great deal of time reforming Maine’s Job Council to create the State Workforce Investment Board to promote training that ensures a skilled workforce."
Hastedt acknowledged that the expenditures and costs of the social safety net programs in Maine are going up. But she took exception to LePage's comment that they were "cannibalizing" the state government, saying he was ignoring the recession.
She praised the responsiveness of the food stamp program, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as well as the state's general assistance fund.
"They've really responded to a time when there's huge unemployment," she said. "Nevertheless, the governor just proposed to cut that program [the general assistance fund], arguing that its spending had significantly increased. Of course its spending has significantly increased. That's its job in a time like this."
LePage has advocated for limiting welfare eligibility to five years and implementing mandatory drug testing of recipients who have been convicted of drug offenses.
In December, Maine People's Alliance scheduled a rally to protest LePage's economic policies, prompting the governor to hold an unscheduled meeting with three out-of-work Mainers. Although the governor's office sent out a press release describing the encounter as positive, LePage told reporters that the meeting was "bullshit."
Watch LePage's GOP convention speech:
UPDATE: 5/10/12 -- Bennett contacted The Huffington Post to clarify that LePage was talking about unemployed welfare recipients, not all unemployed individuals. This article has been updated to reflect the distinction.