The Maine Republican Party called out a pair of southern Maine Democrats for statements they made defending welfare benefits for immigrants during a recent committee meeting.

One of the lawmakers, Rep. Scott Hamann of South Portland, said that if there is evidence that welfare benefits attract immigrants to Maine, paying for the aid could be a good investment because the immigrants eventually become much-needed new workers who can help improve the economy. The comments were made March 2 during a four-hour work session of the Health and Human Services committee, which questioned LePage administration officials about proposals to cut welfare benefits for non-citizens, including some immigrants seeking asylum.

Maine Republican Party Chairwoman Demi Kouzounas issued a written statement Tuesday saying the comments are an affront to Maine’s working-class taxpayers.

“If Mainers could take a day off from their backbreaking work and listen in to what liberal politicians are saying about welfare and work, they would be shocked at how out of touch many of their representatives in Augusta are,” Kouzounas said in the statement. “No matter how much they lose at the polls, the Democratic Party remains the party of more welfare, less work, and more insults for the everyday, hardworking people of our great state.”

Hamann said the statement highlighted by Republicans doesn’t accurately reflect the full conversation that was taking place during the work session.

“Republican operatives cherry-picked a quote and misrepresented my words in a deliberate attempt to mislead the public,” he said.

Statement by Rep. Scott Hamann, D-South Portland:


The Maine Republican Party posted audio recordings of the statements from Hamann and Rep. Jennifer Parker, D-South Berwick, on the party’s website stating the two were advocating for welfare for “abled-bodied non-residents.”

Parker also responded Thursday by saying the statement highlighted by Republicans was taken out of context. While the entire work session lasted more than four hours, Republicans posted a clip of Hamann speaking that ran 47 seconds and a clip of Parker speaking that is just 22 seconds.

The work session focused on several proposed cuts in welfare benefits that would be aimed at non-citizens, such as immigrants who came to Maine legally but have overstayed their visas while seeking political asylum.

WEIGHING ECONOMIC BENEFITS

Hamann and Parker were among the committee members who questioned administration officials during the meeting about whether the proposals reflected an anti-immigrant attitude and whether the administration was considering all of the economic benefits that immigrants bring, even if they temporarily rely on assistance programs when they arrive.

At one point, another lawmaker asked if there was any data to support claims made by some welfare critics that immigrants come to Maine because of the benefits provided by the state and communities.

Hamann said that “considering our workforce shortage and the demographic changes in the state and every economist agreeing almost unanimously that … immigrants are the workers we have to attract to grow our workforce and grow our economy, if it’s only going to cost us a couple million bucks, that’s a heck of an investment.

Statement by Rep. Jennifer Parker, D-South Berwick:

“So, I’d be interested to see if there is data out there showing that people are coming for the benefits. I’d personally want to double down on it if it’s going to get more workers here and improve our economy.”

Hamann was referring to the $2 million in state funds that are distributed to non-citizens as General Assistance benefits by cities and towns. The aid pays for rent and other necessities for families that have no other alternatives. In all, the state provides about $12 million a year in reimbursements to cities and towns for General Assistance, with the bulk of those funds going to U.S. citizens. Maine’s three largest cities – Portland, Lewiston and Bangor – distribute the majority of General Assistance benefits.

Hamann said Thursday that he stood by his statements and that the conversation was broader in context in that he was suggesting that immigrants who receive welfare benefits for a short period eventually become working, tax-paying citizens, and they are needed to grow Maine’s shrinking workforce.

“It’s simple economics in a state with an aging workforce. Economists also agree that the most feasible way to close Maine’s workforce shortage is to attract work-ready people to our state, and new Mainers are the answer to our prayers. They come with skills, life experiences, and a desire to get to work as quickly as possible,” he said.

Hamann went on to say asylum-seeking immigrants with skills are prohibited from working until they are cleared and given work permits by the federal government, a process that can take up to 18 months or longer. “Republicans should know this, yet they choose to refer to ‘welfare spending for able-bodied non-citizens.’ While they may be able-bodied, they are prohibited from working. It’s against federal law.”

Kouzounas said Parker’s comment during the meeting was an insult to Maine workers.

Parker talked during the meeting about the need she hears frequently from business owners who say they cannot hire enough native citizens for seasonal jobs and rely on immigrants to do the work. As an example, she cited an apple orchard operator who told her that local workers “can only last at the back-breaking work for a certain amount of time” and don’t take the physical, seasonal jobs.

“For Rep. Parker to say we need more welfare for non-citizens because Mainers don’t work hard enough is a slap in the face to hundreds of thousands of loggers, lobstermen, and farmers who get up every day to provide for their families,” Kouzounas said in his statement. “A good work ethic isn’t something that is exclusive to immigrants, I have seen first hand the work ethic of both immigrants and Mainers, and I believe Rep. Parker owes Maine workers an apology.”

DEBATE OVER WORK ETHIC

Parker, like Hamann, said her comments were being taken out of context.

“I would ask the people of Maine to listen to the entire conversation. That quote is clearly taken out of context,” Parker said. “Maine work ethics and capabilities are among the best in the world and it’s disappointing anyone would imply otherwise.”

The comments highlighted by the Republican Party did not lead other committee members to object during the work session.

However, another question posed by Hamann about the racial makeup of the non-citizens did lead to some discussion.

Hamann said he wanted to know the countries of origin of the affected people because, whether or not there is a racial intent, it could paint a picture “of a racially homogeneous state excluding a particular racial makeup.” Other committee members cautioned against casting the issue as a racial one.

Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, the Senate chairman of the committee, said he considered Hamann’s comments as an “insinuation” that the policy proposal to stop funding General Assistance for non-citizens was racially motivated.

Brakey said he couldn’t speak for all the committee members, but got a sense that even some of the Democratic members of the committee did not agree with Hamann.

“Rep. Hamann put his own personal view out there and he can speak for himself, but I don’t think that every Democratic member of the committee was comfortable with what he said – just my sense,” Brakey said.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

sthistle@pressherald.com

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