PORTLAND, Maine — All in attendance at the news conference in Portland on Friday afternoon agreed that $11.3 million in grant funding to help at-risk students is good news, but the announcement quickly reopened schisms between Maine Democrats and Gov. Paul LePage over MaineCare expansion and aid for undocumented immigrants.
The grants LePage announced Friday represent federal money being distributed to local nonprofits and school districts by the Maine Department of Education.
That opened the door for Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, to question why the Republican governor is comfortable accepting federal money for education programs, but not MaineCare expansion, which Democrats have argued would provide government health care coverage to an additional 70,000 Mainers.
“What makes this federal program acceptable? What federal programs does he deem acceptable, and which ones will he deem to be ‘welfare,’” Alfond said. “I’m confused and the rest of the state is confused about when it’s acceptable to take federal dollars.”
LePage’s office countered that, unlike the the MaineCare expansion — which would initially be funded entirely by the federal government under President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act but would obligate the state to cover some of the costs after three years — the education grants will not trigger significant additional costs to Maine taxpayers.
Adrienne Bennett, spokeswoman for LePage, blasted Alfond for using the education grants to talk about the politically divisive MaineCare expansion.
“Now, Alfond is using at-risk youth as pawns in his welfare expansion political rhetoric? That’s sad,” Bennett told the Bangor Daily News.
The education grant announcement also led to discussion of the LePage administration’s attempts to curb General Assistance aid to undocumented immigrants. LePage has threatened to cut off General Assistance funds to municipalities that don’t bar undocumented immigrants from receiving the safety net benefits.
On Friday, LePage was asked how he can reconcile that stance with his favorable position on the education grants, which could benefit undocumented immigrant students — particularly in areas like Greater Portland, where the largest portion of the grant money will be distributed and where there are large immigrant populations.
“If we do have [undocumented immigrants in these education programs], I would interject to say they’re not qualifying. They have to have legitimate paperwork,” he said. “We’re putting this program out not just to help immigrants, but to help our kids in our school systems to be proficient. Frankly, if I knew about [undocumented immigrants taking part in the grant-funded programs], I would take action. If I don’t know about it, there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Two local education officials responsible for administering the grant-funded programs in Greater Portland said Friday it’s not their responsibility to keep track of the students’ immigration statuses, meaning it’s unlikely the governor will learn about any cases of undocumented immigrants taking part, if those cases exist.
Ethan Strimling is the executive director of LearningWorks, a Portland-based nonprofit helping to administer the grant-funded after-school and summer enrichment programs in Portland and South Portland.
Strimling, a former Democratic state lawmaker, said he won’t be checking program participants for immigration paperwork, and said any student enrolled in Portland or South Portland schools with a need for educational help would qualify.
Portland Public Schools Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk said he does not plan to screen the programs for undocumented immigrants, either.
Alfond, who did not deliver a prepared statement during the Friday news conference but was in attendance, took umbrage with the governor’s response.
“I think that’s very troubling that we would take out our actions against young students that want to learn,” he said. “We have a broken immigration system.”