PORTLAND, Maine — Officials in Maine’s largest cities worry that Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to eliminate a decades-old welfare program would blow million-dollar holes in their budgets and put thousands of poor Mainers at risk of going hungry or losing their homes.
LePage’s proposal could just be a bargaining chip in what is sure to be a long and bitter battle over the fate of the next state budget — but some still say it’s dangerous.
“This is an idea that will result in suffering and more costs for cities and towns, including Portland, and mostly just for political reasons,” said state Rep. Erik Jorgensen, D-Portland.
In his final budget as governor, LePage proposed cutting the entire $12.1 million allocation for General Assistance in the next fiscal year. The program, which gives poor Mainers vouchers to cover basic needs like rent, food and medication on the condition that most seek work, has long been on the fiscally conservative Republican’s chopping block. And LePage has successfully shifted a larger share of its cost to cities in past budgets.
In Portland, Bangor and Lewiston — the so-called service center communities that together dispersed more than $10.3 million of General Assistance in the last fiscal year — the program’s elimination would require either dramatic cuts in services, higher taxes or big reductions in other spending. It’s a move some city officials say would do nothing to solve the problems of Maine’s destitute and merely bump the costs down to the cities and towns.
“It’s simply a cost shift from state to local,” said Rindy Fogler, Bangor’s community services manager. “The need doesn’t go away.”
The proposed elimination is certain to meet staunch resistance from lobbyists, the Democrats and some of the cities and towns that administer it. The Democratic majority in the House of Representatives makes the proposal passing a long shot. But it is nestled in with a bevy of other welfare cuts. The dramatic proposal also gives LePage a strong position from which to negotiate other changes to the aid program that’s been at the center of some of his clashes over immigration with Maine’s larger, more liberal cities.
“This might just be a trial balloon that the governor is putting out there, but it won’t go over well with my caucus,” said Jorgensen, who sits on the Appropriations and Financial Affairs committee.
In recent years, LePage has pushed hard against providing General Assistance benefits to asylum seekers, who are not citizens, and undocumented immigrants. Portland and the Maine Municipal Association pushed back in the courts, and Maine’s largest city has continued to provide such people benefits, without using state money. There’s a hint that ending this practice might be what the governor is really after.
His budget makes the unusual move of proposing an amendment to the General Assistance law that it also seeks to repeal. The amendment would make it illegal for municipalities to give General Assistance to noncitizens who don’t qualify for federal benefits.
The governor’s office did not respond to questions for this story, but LePage likely sees getting rid of or altering General Assistance as an opportunity to cement his legacy as a welfare reformer. Past polling that shows Mainers favor “welfare reform,” and the 2nd Congressional District’s support for President-elect Donald Trump — who ran on an anti-immigration platform — may also suggest to LePage that he has political capital to spend on the issue.
The state reimburses municipalities 70 percent of what they spend on General Assistance. The end of this funding would mean municipal budget gaps and tough choices about cutting services or increasing taxes for larger cities, where there tend to be more welfare recipients. Maine finished 2016 with a $93 million budget surplus.
But it also might exact a heavy toll on Maine’s rural communities. People struggling to meet their basic needs in such communities often end up coming to Maine’s larger cities where services, affordable housing and transportation are more readily available, according to Fogler and Dawn Stiles, director of Portland’s health and human services department. So smaller towns would suffer if services in cities were cut, they suggested.
In the budget briefing, LePage suggests that General Assistance breeds dependence and reliance on the state.
But those who administer it say the program is designed to help people find a way into the workforce and that the recent data contradict the idea that many people wallow on the welfare program.
Over the last 5 years, 88 percent of people who received General Assistance in Bangor were on the program for 12 months or less and 77 percent were on it for five months or less, according to Fogler. People who receive General Assistance must reapply for the benefits each month and, except for some with disabilities, attend job placement programs. In Portland, the health and human services department requires that people provide proof they’re attending job training or language programs in order to continue receiving benefits, Stiles said.
“While the governor might think that people can linger on [General Assistance], certainly in Portland they can’t,” Stiles said.