AUGUSTA, Maine — After years of steady work at a Portland-area metal business, Alan Beam found himself, like many Americans, watching his hours dwindle until the recession finally claimed his job.
Desperate to support his wife and two young girls, Beam said they moved back to his native Washington County hoping he could make it once again as a clammer but ended up back in Portland because, he said Wednesday, that’s where the jobs are.
But work is scarce, and Beam acknowledges he has had to rely on both state and federal assistance to support his young family. Now the LePage administration wants to cut off state-funded general assistance for anyone who receives federal help.
“I’ve worked hard all of my life, but when it comes to your family being on the streets, you have to look for help,” an emotional Beam told lawmakers. “If you tell me and my family we can’t apply for general assistance, we will be homeless.”
Beam’s story was one of many heard Wednesday by lawmakers facing additional tough decisions as they work to craft a two-year budget that has developed numerous holes in recent months, in part, because of higher demand on social services.
Faced with a new, $164 million shortfall, the LePage administration has proposed a series of budget fixes that — if approved by lawmakers — would shrink the so-called “safety net” for some low-income families, childless adults, recent immigrants and seniors on Medicare. Some of those changes would bring Maine in line with federal standards after years of the state offering more generous social services than required.
Advocates for the poor, the elderly and substance abusers as well as health workers and municipal officials urged lawmakers to resist those changes, however.
“Cost shifting to municipalities, health care providers and hospitals … is not reform, it is bad public policy,” said Shawn Yardley, director of the city of Bangor’s community services department. “It will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable and will not achieve your stated goals of reducing the burden on Maine taxpayers and helping people become more self-sufficient.”
The most controversial changes proposed by the LePage administration include eliminating MaineCare eligibility for 16,000 adults without children and 12,000 parents who earn more than 133 percent of the federal poverty level. Combined, those changes will save the state more than $35 million a year and put Maine more in line with other states.
The administration has also proposed language stating that anyone who is eligible for federal help through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, or TANF, would be ineligible for general assistance, or welfare, from the state or municipalities.
Other changes would reduce state subsidies for programs that help the elderly pay for Medicare programs.
“These are tough choices,” said Adrienne Bennett, spokeswoman for Gov. Paul LePage. “But we have significant holes that we need to fill, and we need to balance the budget … Some of the decisions are going to be difficult.”
Lawmakers have been working on LePage’s $6.1 billion budget for more than two months now and have roughly one month left to finalize the spending plan before the Legislature’s statutory adjournment date of June 15. Although Republicans have majorities in both chambers, they will need significant Democratic support to gain the two-thirds majority required for enactment.
Not all of the testimony in the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee on Wednesday was hostile toward LePage’s budget. Several speakers and business representatives praised the governor for proposing to reduce the top income tax rate from 8.5 percent to 7.95 percent and to double the “death tax” exemption for estates valued at up to $2 million.
For others, however, any talk of tax cuts while contemplating reductions to safety net programs was distasteful.
“The governor’s proposed budget is irresponsible and immoral,” said Tammy Trask with the Maine Association of Independent Neighborhoods. “It provides tax cuts to the wealthiest while at the same time harming some of the most vulnerable in our state.”
Providers of substance abuse services and advocates for the homeless warned that the proposal to eliminate MaineCare eligibility for childless adults — a major demographic — when combined with other cuts to treatment programs would likely result in facility closures.
“It is a very, very, very hard life,” said Alan Goldsmith, a member of Homeless Voices for Justice who said general assistance helped him get off of the streets. “I beg you to vote against this because it is going to cause massive homelessness and more people in emergency rooms, hospitals and jails.”
During a rally earlier Wednesday, speakers urged lawmakers to reject a LePage administration proposal that would limit access to MaineCare, food stamps and other assistance programs to legal immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for less than five years.
That change is expected to save the state more than $17 million over two years, but Francois Nahimana, who immigrated to Maine from the African nation of Burundi, warned that it will hurt people trying to establish a new life in Maine after fleeing war and conflict.
“We have come to this country for food, safety and shelter and to start over like immigrants before us,” said Nahimana, who speaks English but was addressing the crowd in French, one of his native country’s major languages. “These cuts will leave us in a critical situation. We contribute to our communities and we want to continue to do so.”
Low-income Mainers were not the only group that would feel the sting. On Wednesday, Gov. Paul LePage announced a proposal to eliminate all state funding — roughly $3.9 million over the next two years — to the Maine Public Broadcasting Network. State employees and public retirees, meanwhile, are still battling proposed increases in their pension contributions and a freeze on their cost-of-living adjustments.