Passing the welfare buck

Posted June 07, 2011, at 6:47 p.m.

Lowering taxes has been a mantra of leadership in Augusta this legislative session. So, it is odd that a tax increase for residents of the state’s largest communities is still under consideration.

As part of his budget, Gov. Paul LePage proposed to reduce the amount of state funds sent to communities for their general assistance programs. The cuts would effect Portland, Bangor and Lewiston the most. Of the $15 million spent in Maine last year on general assistance, more than $9 million of that was distributed in Portland and Bangor. Because these communities are service centers, they have greater demand for general assistance and other social programs.

In most Maine communities, the state pays for 50 percent and the municipalities pay 50 percent. In larger service center communities where need is great, the state pays 90 percent. Although Gov. LePage has scaled back some of his initial plans for reforming general assistance, one idea that has remained is to reduce state reimbursement for general assistance in communities such as Portland and Bangor from 90 percent to 75 percent.

Bangor would have to increase its general assistance budget by an estimated $260,000 this year and by as much as $350,000 next year if the proposal remains in the biennial budget that lawmakers are now finishing. Portland expects nearly $1 million in increased local expenditures over the next two years if state support is reduced.

General assistance is an emergency funding program run by local communities but mandated by the state. As long as the state mandate remains, the funds — which mostly go to food and housing — must be handed out.

If the state devotes fewer dollars to these programs, local communities must come up with more, which translates into an increase in property taxes.

Bangor and Portland have already tightened their qualifications for general assistance. Portland, for example, checks unemployment and bank information before declaring someone eligible for general assistance. In both cities able-bodied applicants must participate in workfare programs. Workfare assignments are made to various city departments and local nonprofit organizations. The number of hours assigned is determined by dividing the amount of assistance received by current minimum wage. In Bangor, workfare participants are expected to work four hours a day until their obligation is completed.

Cuts lawmakers are considering to other welfare programs, such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and Medicaid, will likely lead to more people asking for general assistance. This will further stress local budgets. A proposal to deny general assistance to people getting federal aid is unnecessarily punitive and should also be rejected.

Rather than just pushing this large problem around, lawmakers should want to give serious consideration to what is causing increased demand for social services. Is it because of the recession? Is it because too few people have the skills employers need? Is it because Maine is too generous, which draws people here?

A study approved by lawmakers this session should provide some answers. Making cuts without those answers is irresponsible and shortsighted.

Lawmakers eliminated cuts to general assistance from the governor’s budget changes for the current fiscal year. They should do so again for the next two-year budget.