PORTLAND, Maine — All sides in a dispute over the denial of General Assistance funds to people seeking asylum in Maine claimed victory Tuesday after a Superior Court Justice issued a split decision in a lawsuit over Gov. Paul LePage’s mandate on who qualifies for aid.

Justice Thomas D. Warren ruled that the Maine Department of Health and Human Services cannot withhold all General Assistance funds — as the governor had threatened to do but not carried out — from municipalities that give the funds to immigrants seeking asylum until the agency follows state law that outlines how rules may be changed.

The judge also found that the state does not have to reimburse cities and towns for the aid that they give to asylum seekers.

“DHHS has no statutory or regulatory authority to penalize municipalities for noncompliance with DHHS instruction or directive relating to persons who DHHS deems ineligible for general assistance,” Warren wrote in his 20-page opinion.

The judge also found that until and unless the Legislature enacts laws that allow asylum seekers to receive General Assistance funds, they are ineligible under federal law.

The lawsuit was filed in July by the Maine Municipal Association along with association members Portland and Westbrook challenging a directive issued last June from Gov. Paul LePage that all General Assistance funds — not just the portion provided to undocumented immigrants — would be denied to municipalities that did not follow his directive.

“The people of Maine have spoken out for years against welfare for illegal immigrants, and now the courts have spoken,” LePage said Tuesday afternoon in a press release issued by David Sorensen, director of media relations for DHHS. “The only people who still support welfare for illegal immigrants are liberal lawmakers in Augusta who are ignoring the Maine people and refusing to include common-sense welfare reforms in the state’s budget.”

Sorensen’s press release also said that DHHS has not penalized Portland or any other municipality “by withholding qualified reimbursements.”

“We’re very pleased that this decision urges Portland and other municipalities to abide by federal law and allows DHHS to continue denying reimbursements of welfare benefits paid in violation of the law,” DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew said.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit said in their own releases that the judge had ruled in their favor.

“This administration and future ones now know they must follow legally required rulemaking in order to make this kind of change in a long-standing policy and practice,” MMA Executive Director Christopher G. Lockwood said. “No governor or state agency can simply issue a directive and have it be enforceable.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine intervened in the case on behalf of two refugees from Burundi who fled due to political persecution and applied for asylum in Maine.

Zachary Heiden, an attorney with the organization, called the decision “an important victory for the rule of law.”

“It now is quite clear that DHHS acted illegally and unlawfully,” he said. “The department’s efforts to deny life-saving assistance to asylum seekers and other legal immigrants cannot be supported by the law.”
Heiden said that it is up to municipalities to interpret the federal guidelines outlining which non-citizens should receive General Assistance.

The state’s largest municipality between July 1 and Sept. 30, 2014, distributed a total of nearly $2.55 million in General Assistance funds, according to documents posted on the City of Portland’s website. Of that, about $850,000 went to documented immigrants and nearly $428,000 went to undocumented immigrants. The rest was distributed to U.S. citizens living in Maine.

A message left for Bangor Director of Health and Community Services Patty Hamilton seeking the city’s GA distribution figures was not immediately returned Tuesday.

General Assistance is a state and locally funded program that was originally intended to provide short-term and immediate financial help to a person in an unexpected crisis. The benefit, based on financial need, is intended to help with housing, food, medicine or other life essentials, including heating fuel payments.

The state’s budget for the program is set at about $13 million per year, up from $5.6 million in 2004. Under the current system, the state reimburses most municipalities at 50 percent. But Portland, Lewiston and Bangor are reimbursed at 90 percent. The higher rate is triggered when a city or town spends more than 0.03 percent of its total state property valuation on General Assistance.