May 20, 2018
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General assistance veto misplaced

Kate Collins | BDN
Kate Collins | BDN
Francesca, who declined to give her last name, holds her 3-month-old daughter, Una, as they wait to meet with a social worker at Bangor's Health and Community Services office in January 2011. Francesca, then a 24-year-old single mother of two, had been receiving general assistance, which is a temporary subsidy given by Maine municipalities to help cover housing, heat and basic living expenses for a short period of time.

Spending on general assistance, emergency financial help provided by towns, has increased significantly in recent years. This could mean the system is being abused, or it could mean that, in the face of the worst recession in generations, more people needed help. It would make sense to find out which is true. Maybe both are.

That’s what the majority of lawmakers voted to do. As part of a supplemental budget approved last week, they created a work group to study general assistance in Maine and report back recommendations later this year.

Lawmakers also reached a deal to cap general assistance at 270 days, or longer with an exemption, and reduced the reimbursement to service center communities from 90 percent to 85 percent.

That wasn’t enough for Gov. Paul LePage. In an unusual move, he used the line-item veto this weekend to reject the GA changes. They didn’t go far enough, he said.

“General assistance is a welfare program that, like most others, has gotten out of control,” the governor said in his veto letter. “The amounts vetoed will put this issue back on the table and the Legislature must summon the political courage to fix the program structurally. Hiding from our problems will not make them go away.”

The Legislature isn’t hiding from this problem, however, it just chose a different path than the governor.

GA is the most local and basic of welfare spending. People go to their town office and ask for help. By state law, the town cannot say no. That hasn’t stopped some for putting conditions on the help. Portland, for example, checks unemployment and bank information before declaring someone eligible for general assistance. Those seeking food assistance are provided vouchers, which must be returned with vendor receipts before payment is made. In Bangor and Portland, able-bodied applicants must participate in workfare programs.

Still, the programs have grown. In Portland, GA spending has gone from $4.1 million in 2008 to $6.8 million in 2011. It is reasonable to find out why.

That’s why the committee formed by the Legislature should be allowed to do its work. Then the governor and lawmakers can make an informed decision about how best to reform general assistance.

Gov. LePage has made it abundantly clear that he wants Maine’s welfare spending dramatically reduced. This is a reasonable goal, but using a blunt instrument — the line-item veto — to get there is not especially productive.

Here’s how Chris Hall — a business advocate, not a social service worker — put the situation in his weekly email to members of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce: “From a Portland perspective the bipartisan supplemental budget’s reduction of municipal general assistance forced structural change on the city’s programs, but did so in ways that gave officials time and opportunity to absorb cuts without the threat of increasing property taxes. The governor’s veto undoes that work and leaves the city’s taxpayers facing substantial tax increases, along with the prospect of increased homelessness in our region.”

Unless simply passing the tax buck down the line and increasing homeless are acceptable to lawmakers, the Legislature should overturn this veto and begin the needed work of finding better ways to improve general assistance.

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