Lawmakers push back against proposed cuts to general assistance program

By Eric Russell, BDN Staff
Posted March 30, 2012, at 3:52 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers on the Health and Human Services Committee are pushing back against some cuts to Maine’s general assistance program contained in Gov. Paul LePage’s supplemental budget, but they agreed that the program needs to change to survive.

In his $37 million budget package, LePage called for reducing to 50 percent the general assistance reimbursement for all communities, a move some feel disproportionately affects service centers. Currently, larger communities such as Portland and Bangor shoulder much of the state’s emergency assistance burden and receive 90 percent reimbursement after a certain threshold is reached.

LePage also has proposed a time limit of 90 days that a recipient can receive assistance for housing and would prohibit assistance to anyone who is receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a federal subsidy program.

The Health and Human Services Committee issued a majority report to the Appropriations Committee this week that rejected a proposal to cap general-assistance housing subsidies at 90 days. It also said that persons who are receiving federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits should still be eligible for general assistance, but only for housing.

The committee further addressed the governor’s plan to cap general-assistance reimbursement at 50 percent across the board by suggesting that instead of reducing the general-assistance reimbursement by the state, the difference owed to the service centers should be paid by the Maine State Housing Authority.

The final recommendation — which seemed to have the most support — was to convene a workgroup to study general assistance in Maine and find better and more efficient ways to administer the benefits. That workgroup would report back to the Legislature in December 2012.

Those recommendations are now before the budget-writing committee, which is responsible for reporting out the governor’s supplemental budget proposal that contains much more than just cuts to general assistance.

During a public hearing last week, many spoke in opposition to the general-assistance changes, including a coalition of mayors from Maine’s biggest communities.

Portland has seen its general assistance budget increase from $4 million in 2008 to $6.8 million in 2011. City spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said the city actually saved money in 2011 by streamlining its system but she said Portland officials are supportive of efforts that would bring uniformity to the general-assistance system.

Bangor also has seen its general-assistance budget increase steadily since the recession hit in 2008. For the 2010 calendar year, the city’s general assistance office granted 1,591 awards totaling $2.3 million. In 2011, that total jumped to $3 million.

The welfare directors for both Portland and Bangor addressed members of the Appropriations Committee on Friday to further discuss the general-assistance proposals. Both Doug Gardiner and Shawn Yardley said they favored a study that leads to long-term changes

‘“Some of the proposals have unintended consequences that won’t result in saving money,” Yardley said.

The Appropriations Committee was expected to work well into the night Friday and most of Saturday on the governor’s supplemental budget proposal.

Follow BDN reporter Eric Russell on Twitter @ BDNPolitics

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/03/30/politics/lawmakers-push-back-against-proposed-cuts-to-general-assistance-program/ printed on August 21, 2014