LEWISTON, Maine — Robert Macdonald, who is seeking re-election to a third term as Lewiston’s mayor, intends to submit a bill to the Legislature to require the creation of a website that would list the names of people on welfare, as well as their addresses, lengths of time on welfare and types of benefits they’ve received.
All of that information is shielded from the public under current law, and Macdonald believes that should change so taxpayers know who is getting what. But a Democratic legislator who co-chairs the Health and Human Services Committee noted that even if state laws change, federal restrictions will make it impossible to list the names publicly.
Macdonald introduced his plan in a regular column he writes for the Twin City Times.
He would still want to protect a person’s medical records, financial statements and other personal information from “busybodies who seek it out of curiosity.”
In his column, titled “Enough is Enough,” Macdonald points out that “in Maine there is a website that lists the pension amounts received by everyone who is issued a monthly check by the state of Maine. No privacy here because this is being paid out by the state; accordingly, taxpayers have a right to know.”
Yet, he said, “other recipients of state revenues are shielded. Yes, I am referring to those known as welfare recipients.”
In the column, Macdonald blames “our liberal, progressive legislators and their social-service allies (who) have made them a victimized, protected class.”
Macdonald, who has earned a reputation for fighting welfare fraud during his two terms in office, said “the days of being quiet are gone.”
He does not yet have a sponsor for the bill.
In addition to the bill to make welfare benefits public records, Macdonald said he will ask lawmakers to submit House Resolve 368, “which will bring local General Assistance into compliance with federal laws that limit General Assistance to a 60-month total lifetime benefit.”
And, he said, he also will ask for another bill that would prohibit the state from paying benefits for any additional child born after a recipient has been accepted into General Assistance. The bill would be modeled after a law in effect in Massachusetts.
Massachusetts enacted what is called a “family cap” that controls benefits for children born after a family first applies for welfare, denying cash and other benefits for the newborn.
Contacted by phone Thursday, Macdonald said he has given copies of the proposed legislation to Sens. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, and Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, and Libby is not supportive of at least one of them, Macdonald said.
Brakey, the Senate co-chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, which would have jurisdiction over the legislation, said he would sponsor the public records bill for Macdonald if the mayor asked him to do so.
“I’m a strong supporter for welfare reform,” Brakey said. “But I’m also a big advocate for privacy rights, so I would really need to study this more before saying whether I would support this or not.”
Lawmakers have until Friday to submit proposed bill titles for the second legislative session, which starts in January. All bill proposals, except those coming from the governor, face their first hurdle before the Legislative Council, which decides the legislation to be considered in the second session.
Peter Steele, communications director for Gov. Paul LePage, said the governor has no plans to introduce legislation on behalf of Macdonald’s proposal.
Macdonald said his proposals are designed “basically to stop these people from coming here. We’re just getting overwhelmed here” from people who come to Maine from out of state.
It’s not just the costs of welfare benefits, Macdonald said, but the costs of additional children in public schools, a lot of whom have special needs.
“I’m not talking about refugees,” he said, but generational welfare recipients who move to Lewiston “to play the system.”
Macdonald said he’s realistic about the chances of the public records bill ever passing.
“I’m not sure that it would stand up,” he said. “But, we’re always talking about transparency, and if we had a website like that, I think it would cut down a lot on welfare.”
He said the website wouldn’t be designed to embarrass anyone, because generational welfare recipients already “flaunt it in public.”
Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, House chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee, said he was discouraged by what he sees as Macdonald’s lack of compassion and his lack of understanding as to how public benefits programs work in Maine.
Gattine noted that the vast number of those receiving welfare benefits are usually not on the programs for long periods of time. He also said the key targets for conservative welfare reforms — usually single adults without children — are among those who spend the shortest period of time on welfare programs unless they are disabled or elderly.
In Maine today, Gattine said, only 6,000 families are receiving support from the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program. But it’s hard, he said, to counter the conservative message on welfare reform because “people go cross-eyed when you start countering them with facts.”
Benefits programs for food and financial support account for about $100 million of the state’s total budget, Gattine said. That compares with $2.7 billion the state spends on medical programs for the poor.
“So in reality we should be spending 27 more times emotional energy on trying to reform those programs than on these others that literally amount to a rounding error in the state budget,” Gattine said.
Gattine said his primary concern with the proposal outlined in Macdonald’s column is it would conflict with both state and federal laws.
“There are specific provisions in federal law that would prohibit the posting of that information,” Gattine said. He said that while state lawmakers could change state law, there was little they could do to change federal law.
“I just wish people would spend more time listening to the pope today and his message that we are all in this together and not spend time listening to this divisive political commentary coming from the mayor of Lewiston,” Gattine said.