- Associated Press - Sunday, July 10, 2016

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - In February, Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan announced a new $8.3 million initiative aimed at helping low-income people find good-paying jobs.

Called Gateway to Work and slated to have begun July 1, the program would target people making up to 200 percent of the federal poverty line, give them skills training, access to transportation or help with child care and send them to employers desperately in need of qualified workers. Ideally, a job would eliminate need for public assistance.

But a 10-member legislative committee tasked with approving the funding for a six-month pilot has yet to do so, and it’s unclear if it ever will.

There’s little disagreement among Republicans and Democrats that the goals are noble. But Republicans on the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee question its cost effectiveness and believe Hassan should’ve written it into the state budget for debate by the full Legislature.

“I don’t think the fiscal committee was set up to take the place on policy matters of 424 members of the state legislature,” said Republican Rep. Neal Kurk, committee chairman. Kurk said he doesn’t plan to vote in favor of the program if it comes up at the Aug. 5 meeting.

Even if the fiscal committee does approve Gateway to Work, the program must still win support of the Executive Council, likely putting a start date still months away. One piece of the program to help low-income teenagers find summer jobs has already been lost due to timing. State agency heads say employers are itching for the program to begin.

Hassan said she has not spoken directly with Kurk but that her office and agency heads are working diligently to answer questions.

“I really think it would be a shame to delay it much more,” she said in a Thursday interview.

Gateway to Work is a partnership between the Departments of Health and Human Services, Employment Security, Corrections and Education, the community college system and businesses in health care, IT and advanced manufacturing. The program would repurpose $8.3 million in funding from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families cash assistance program. TANF caseloads are down by half since 2010, freeing up money.

The program’s main goal is to train un- or underemployed workers with skills needed to fill available jobs and to remove certain barriers to their abilities to work, such as a lack of transportation or get affordable child care.

“It seemed that Gateway to Work as we developed it really was marrying ideas of Republicans and Democrats about how to strengthen our most vulnerable,” Hassan said. “If we do this right, we will be moving people off of welfare and off of public assistance, and that helps all taxpayers.”

It’s unclear how many people would earn jobs, a hang-up for skeptical lawmakers. The contract estimates training 438 “job ready” workers and 185 “high-need clients.” But officials stress those are rough estimates.

“If this is a program to get people back to work, but you’re saying it’s designed for people making under $30,000, don’t they already have jobs?” Republican Sen. Andy Sanborn asked state health officials at a May fiscal committee meeting.

Republican lawmakers also suggest the 10 new state workers sought to run the program is excessive.

Employers say the need for well-trained workers is critical. At a recent job fair put on by the state, just 350 people showed up for 1,200 jobs, employment security officials said. New Hampshire’s unemployment rate is under 3 percent, and many employers say they’re struggling to find qualified workers.

Exeter Hospital, one of the interested businesses, began its own 12-week training program in early 2015 to fill a shortage of medical assistants. Working with the community college system, they’ve trained 33 workers for open jobs with a 90 percent success rate. The approval of Gateway to Work would expand the trainings to more workers and lower costs, said Chris Callahan, vice president of human resources.

“It’s a great application of, I think, wisdom on the part of the governor to use this approach to train people up to keep them out of poverty,” Callahan said.

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