AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers expressed horror over proposed cuts in the state program that helps some of the most desperate Mainers on Monday as they began reviewing potential social service cuts recommended by Gov. John Baldacci’s administration.
The program is called general assistance and it serves as a last resort for the homeless, the hungry and “those out on the street,” Sen. Joseph Brannigan said during a hearing before two committees assessing numerous cuts.
The cuts in Baldacci’s supplemental two-year budget seek to address a $438 million gap between revenues and expenses.
Monday’s hearing helped to set the tone for the new session, in which budget cuts are expected to dominate the agenda. While some advocacy groups have said a tax increase is needed to avoid further cuts in critical state services, Gov. Baldacci has taken a firm stand against higher taxes and prospects for hikes are poor in an election year session.
The Department of Health and Human Services is among the hardest-hit, with proposed cutbacks in numerous programs such as state supplements to federal Supplemental Security Income, child welfare services and reimbursements for critical access hospitals, which are the first point of access for many of Maine’s rural residents.
But cuts in general assistance generated the strongest reaction from committee members, who also were told that Portland and Bangor — cities that are magnets for people from outlying areas who seek jobs and social services — face most of the burden of cuts.
“When you put it together with school cuts and the revenue sharing cuts, and other responsibilities it’s huge,” said Brannigan, D-Portland, Senate chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, which reviewed cuts with the Appropriations Committee. Brannigan said that with all of the cuts, municipalities may be forced to raise local taxes.
Portland City Councilor John Anton said the proposed cuts would slash the state general assistance allocation in his city by $1.3 million, a third of last year’s $3.9 million figure. With the recession raging, Portland has seen demands on its general assistance program increase by 40 percent, he said. Nearly all of the funds go to food and shelter for recipients.
Those seeking help, he said, include people who have advance degrees, have skilled and professional work experience.
“Many of these first-time applicants own their own homes, have previously been employed and are not struggling with securing basic necessities,” Anton told the lawmakers.
Shawn Yardley, director of health and community services in Bangor, said now is not the time to be undercutting general assistance to Maine’s two biggest service centers when so much of the money goes to people struggling to find housing. While Bangor represents just 2 percent of the state’s population, it is being asked to absorb a large chunk of the cuts to general assistance.
Bangor and Portland would not be the only areas hit hard by the cuts, according to speakers.
Rep. Donald Soctomah, the Passamaquoddy Tribal representative, said the proposed cuts represent four months of general assistance to the tribal community.
Reading from a letter from a letter from Gov. Richard Phillips-Doyle of the Passamaquoddy Pleasant Point Reservation, Soctomah told lawmakers that about 400 people — or about one-half of the reservation’s population — received general assistance last year.
Despite attempts to develop the local economy and create jobs for tribal members, the reservation still suffers from high unemployment or underemployment rates, he said.
Soctomah predicted that the reservation’s small food pantry and temporary housing would be overwhelmed and potentially cease to operate under the proposed cuts.
“If the general assistance program is cut or diminished, many of our people will suffer,” he said. “Our tribal government does not want to see our people to go without life’s basic needs, but we are not financially able to make up for this shortfall.”
Health and Human Services Commissioner Brenda Harvey told the committees that demands on her department have increased during the past several years while revenues have decreased. Funding has decreased since 2002 by $32 million to $756 million and the department has 300 fewer employees. Yet the caseload in MaineCare, Maine’s Medicaid program, has increased by 120,000 in the last eight years.
BDN staff writer Kevin Miller contributed to this report.