June 24, 2018
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Welfare reform falls flat in committee

By Kevin Miller, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — Citing likely constitutional issues, a legislative committee on Tuesday quickly dispatched two bills that would have imposed additional residency requirements on welfare recipients.

Lawmakers have been debating a number of measures aimed at addressing the perception — repeated often during last fall’s political campaigns — that non-Maine residents move to the state to take advantage of more generous welfare programs.

But despite a strong appetite for welfare reform among the State House’s new Republican majority, members of the Health and Human Services Committee voted unanimously to recommend rejection of two bills that sought to tighten Maine’s laws.

Both bills would have required applicants for assistance through state and federal programs to prove their residency status before receiving benefits.

LD 1294, sponsored by Rep. Stacey Guerin, R-Glenburn, proposed that applicants present a tax return, utility bill or other government document showing they had been a Maine resident for at least 90 days.

Guerin’s restrictions would have applied to applicants for food stamps, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, or TANF, as well as MaineCare and municipal general assistance programs.

But state officials and advocates for lower-income individuals countered that federal courts repeatedly have struck down as unconstitutional laws that imposed minimum residency requirements. Additionally, critics point out that Maine’s TANF levels are the lowest in New England and that more welfare recipients left Maine between 2006 and 2008 than moved to the state.

Responding to the constitutional issues, Guerin proposed a 30-day waiting period for all applicants. But HHS committee members rejected that idea.

Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, called the 30-day waiting period a backdoor attempt at residency requirements that would end up penalizing Maine residents.

Rep. Leslie Fossel, an Alna Republican who has administered general assistance programs, said in his experience many people seek help only as a last resort when their electricity has been turned off or they are running short on food.

“The problem with the 30-day waiting period is the people who need help the most are the people you’re going to hurt the most,” Fossel said.

The committee voted 12-0 against the bill.

LD 193, sponsored by Rep. Richard Cebra, R-Naples, would have required that applicants for TANF, food stamps or MaineCare — Maine’s Medicaid program — prove they are legal residents of the state or U.S. Although the bill’s title included a 90-day provision similar to Guerin’s measure, the bill’s language does not contain a specific time frame.

But critics pointed out that federal law already requires applicants for TANF, MaineCare or food stamps to be legal U.S. residents. Gov. Paul LePage issued an executive order earlier this year reinforcing his administration’s commitment to enforcing those residency provisions.

Committee members voted 12-0 “ought not to pass” on LD 193.

The committee did, however, endorse a bill, LD 1039, that proposes a special work group to explore ways to increase the efficiency and accountability of municipal general assistance programs.

The bills now will be sent to the House and Senate for consideration; however, the unanimous committee votes mean they may be dispensed with “under the hammer” with no floor debate.

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