AUGUSTA — Lawmakers heard hours of testimony Wednesday on the LePage administration’s controversial policy of withholding assistance for some immigrants and on a slew of other proposed welfare reforms, including having the state run General Assistance programs.

Several of the proposals – such as a six-month state residency requirement for welfare recipients – are repeats from previous legislative sessions and appear unlikely to pass the Legislature this year. But Gov. Paul LePage’s recent, high-profile political and legal battles with Portland over General Assistance ensured a sizable turnout for the public hearings.

Much of the testimony focused on proposals by Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, to change the eligibility standards for General Assistance, the temporary welfare program that is administered by municipalities but partly funded by the state.

Brakey proposed a five-year lifetime cap on General Assistance, stronger penalties on those who fraudulently obtain assistance, and a nine-month limit on assistance for able-bodied individuals with no dependents.

“Welfare programs at their very best are a safety net for people who have fallen on hard times” or have permanent disabilities, said Brakey, who co-chairs the Health and Human Services Committee that is reviewing the proposals. “But welfare at its worst can be addictive. It can be a system where people fall into and can’t get out of.”

The freshman senator also wants to prohibit municipalities from providing General Assistance to asylum seekers and immigrants without visas, going a step further than LePage’s decision last year to stop reimbursing municipalities for assistance to those groups.

That proposal drew some of the most passionate testimony on both sides.

Antonie Bikamba, who fled political persecution and torture in his native Rwanda in 2007, said he relied on General Assistance for roughly a year until receiving a federal work permit. He ultimately went back to school, earned a master’s degree in conflict resolution and now works as a caseworker at Preble Street, a nonprofit that provides services to Portland’s homeless community.

He urged the committee not to cut off assistance to asylum seekers who have no other way to support themselves until they receive work permits, a process that takes at least six months but often much longer.

“Refugees are a diverse group with many different skills … and those seeking asylum, including myself, come here because we fear for our lives, not because we want a handout,” Bikamba said. “I didn’t cross the ocean to receive General Assistance. I came to Maine because I wanted a new life.”

VALUABLE HELP, COSTLY BURDEN

Likewise, Hamet Ly said he fled his native Mauritania last year after he and his family were threatened in part because he worked with the U.S. Embassy. Now living in Portland as he awaits his work permit, Ly is an English tutor and volunteer at numerous organizations. He said he is pained to have to rely even temporarily on public assistance to support his family.

“I believe this is just temporary and I have all of the capabilities and skills to get back on my feet … and then I will be able to give back to the state of Maine, which has helped me so much,” Ly said.

But Lewiston Mayor Bob Macdonald testified that his city can no longer afford to support the local asylum seekers, who have cost the city more than $170,000 so far this year.

Macdonald acknowledged that the problem lies with the long federal waiting period for work permits, not with state law, and said he has urged Maine’s congressional delegation to address the issue. But a federal fix does not seem to be coming.

“It’s killing us. We can’t go on,” Macdonald said. “The people of Lewiston, we just can’t afford to do this any more.”

Portland has, by far, the largest population of asylum seekers and is the state’s largest service center. However, no one from the city testified on the bills Wednesday.

For months, LePage and city leaders have been locked in a legal battle over his administration’s policy of refusing to reimburse municipalities for General Assistance paid to asylum seekers and other immigrants without valid visas. Most aslylum seekers arrive in the U.S. with visas, which typically expire before their asylum applications are reviewed.

LePage’s proposal to halt aid to immigrants would affect more than 500 families, or 900 individuals, according to city figures. Portland officials are already bracing for a financial hit of up to $5 million next year, and the acting city manager’s proposed budget for next year includes 15 layoffs.

Another bill heard Wednesday, L.D. 632, would require the state to take over administration of the General Assistance program.

“I am tired of the argument about one town not doing this the right way,” said bill sponsor Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton. “If we want to do this the right way, then the state needs to do it so that it is consistent.”

STATE DECLINES TO RUN AID PROGRAM

Saviello introduced the bill at the request of the Maine Municipal Association. The association’s Kate Dufour testified that municipalities are constantly caught in a “crossfire” between people who complain that towns are too generous and others who need assistance. Now the LePage administration is proposing to change the rules and criticizing Portland’s management of the program.

“We provide assistance according to statute and then the state comes in and says we are only going to pay for X percent of that,” Dufour said. “That’s not fair. We are not being treated as partners.”

But Sam Adolphsen, chief operating officer at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said the LePage administration doesn’t want to run the General Assistance program. Adolphsen said it is better to have local officials making decisions about who should receive welfare benefits in their communities.

“I believe this is being done effectively across the state with some exceptions, which we are working through with the municipalities, and we believe local control within the guidelines of the program is the appropriate structure of this program,” Adolphsen said.

One bill that is unlikely to pass is Brakey’s proposal to require welfare applicants to prove they have lived in Maine for at least six months in order to qualify.

Responding to an earlier comment by Brakey that lawmakers often don’t hear from “Maine taxpayers because they are working,” Oamshri Amarasingham with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine noted that courts have consistently struck down such residency requirements as unconstitutional.

“As a taxpayer, I don’t appreciate it when the administration and the Legislature move forward with proposals that are clearly unconstitutional,” Amarasingham said.

The committee has scheduled tentative work sessions on the welfare bills for April 28.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.