Gov. Paul LePage says he will challenge Portland’s decision to continue providing emergency assistance to immigrants because it amounted to a “shell game” to use state dollars to cover the expense.

Last week, the Portland City Council voted to create a one-year, $2.6 million fund for asylum seekers hoping to escape political persecution or violence in their homelands. Such noncitizens have been deemed ineligible for state-funded General Assistance.

City councilors were able to create the local aid program, which applies to those receiving assistance in Portland as of Tuesday, with only a minor impact on the city’s property taxpayers because of last-minute state budget changes that brought the city an additional $1.7 million in state education funding. That money will be used to decrease the school’s reliance on property tax, effectively allowing the council to increase tax revenues for the municipal budget without hiking the tax rate.

LePage described the maneuver in his budget veto letter issued Monday afternoon as a “shell game with taxpayer’s money (that) will be challenged by the executive branch.”

It’s unclear how the governor could challenge the allocation. LePage’s press secretary, Adrienne Bennett, said in an email Tuesday the governor was “looking into the authority in which he may have to address this matter.”

Bennett accused Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland, and House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, of being part of the shell game by diverting funds from other educational programs around the state so Portland could assist asylum seekers – people who for the most part are in the country legally, but the administration continues to describe as “illegal.”

“This is the kind of chicanery Maine voters sent Gov. LePage to Augusta to prevent,” Bennett said. “Experienced politicians like Alfond and Eves are accustomed to performing these kind of sneaky, back-room machinations out of the public eye. The governor is determined to expose them and prevent the taxpayers’ hard-earned money from paying for the personal agendas of Augusta politicians.”

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said Tuesday morning he had not read the governor’s veto message. After being read the passage about Portland, Brennan said he had no reaction.

“I’m never quite sure about what the governor is thinking.” Brennan said. “I can’t predict what the governor will do. I’m always more disappointed than I am surprised.”

The city said in a news release Tuesday that benefits for asylum seekers would be fully funded by the city for the month of July. A formal program will be developed and presented to the City Council on July 20 for review and approval. The city’s decision to continue providing aid applies to nearly 1,000 asylum seekers currently receiving assistance, not to new arrivals who apply to the city for help while awaiting work permits and asylee status.

Bennett accused the lawmakers of “transferring $5 million” from two line items – including one used to fund the Baxter School for the Deaf in Falmouth, the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone, and Good Will-Hinckley in Fairfield – into a fund for general purpose aid for education. She also said they added $19.5 million in new spending.

But Eves spokeswoman Jodi Quintero said that funding to those programs was not affected by the Legislature’s compromise budget and that the $5 million referred to by Bennett was additional funding for LePage’s “pet projects.” The Legislature included additional educational funding to bring the state closer to its commitment to fund 55 percent of public education costs, she said.

Quintero said the governor’s criticism was an effort to distract from the firestorm over LePage’s apparent threat to pull about $500,000 in state funding for Good Will-Hinckley over its decision to hire Eves as its next president. The private nonprofit school withdrew the job offer last week.

Alfond said in written statement that additional education funding is needed statewide, but it is up to local officials how to spend it. “Once again, the governor’s office is creating a false picture of the bipartisan work we’ve been doing for six months,” he said.

Public assistance for asylum seekers has been a contentious issue for more than a year. The issue is especially important to Portland, which says roughly 900 of the estimated 1,000 asylum seekers previously on the GA rolls live in the city. Portland has been in the governor’s crosshairs for welfare reform.

The LePage administration cut asylum seekers from the state program last year, citing a 1996 federal law that prohibits such state and local assistance, except in states whose legislatures have passed a law explicitly making them eligible.

In June, a Superior Court judge ruled that the Maine Legislature has never passed such a law and affirmed the state’s right to deny an estimated $5 million in reimbursements to Portland last year, despite the fact that the state had routinely reimbursed Portland for the expenses and routinely found the city’s GA program in compliance with state rules.

Parties in the lawsuit have asked the court to clarify its ruling and are weighing an appeal.

After failing to persuade enough state lawmakers to make asylum seekers eligible for GA, advocates set their sights on the Portland City Council, which created a rare – if not unprecedented – program with a one-time appropriation, even though some councilors feared the city was violating federal law.

The council was encouraged by its legislative delegation to delay voting on its budget until the state budget was clear. While several legislators apologized to councilors and asylum seekers at the council’s June 26 meeting that statewide legislation was not passed, Alfond said he was proud of the final budget deal, which was struck behind closed doors by a handful of lawmakers. And he suggested that the additional revenue for Portland would help it extend aid to asylum seekers.

“I stand proudly to say there is more money coming back to this city because of this budget,” Alfond said. “I think it gives you the opportunity to ensure you can fund (General Assistance) locally. It’s a tough opportunity. It’s a challenging opportunity and it’s not without risks.”

Bennett said the city’s maneuver to create a local fund to help asylum seekers amounted to “an end-run around the Superior Court decision.”

Mayor Brennan defended the city’s actions, saying officials had repeatedly turned to the state for help in preventing hundreds of people who are in the country legally from being homeless.

“The governor has not stepped forward,” Brennan said. “We’re doing what we can at this particular point.”