AUGUSTA — The Maine Senate voted Thursday to cut the limit on General Assistance benefits from five years to nine months.

All of the Senate Republicans, who hold the majority, were joined by four Democrats to give the bill preliminary approval in a 24-11 vote.

The measure is expected to face resistance in the House, where Democrats hold the majority. However, Thursday’s defection by some Democrats signals that some in the party may be willing to support restraints on welfare programs, an issue that many Republicans capitalized on during the 2014 gubernatorial and legislative campaigns.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, limits the time period during which recipients who are capable of working and have no dependents can receive General Assistance to nine months every five years. The proposal is one of more than a dozen welfare-related measures introduced during the current legislative session, including several from Gov. Paul LePage. The LePage administration took a neutral position on Brakey’s bill, L.D. 1035, but is generally supportive of imposing limits on welfare programs, including General Assistance.

General Assistance represents $24.3 million – or 0.8 percent – of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ proposed $3.2 billion budget for the next two fiscal years. The program is administered by municipalities and partially funded by the state and localities.

General Assistance is a temporary welfare program that provides emergency vouchers, but not cash, for housing, food, fuel and other basic needs.


Most communities are now reimbursed for up to 50 percent of General Assistance payouts. But several larger cities, including Portland, Bangor and Lewiston, receive a higher, 90 percent reimbursement rate because they act as service centers for more low-income households. LePage has proposed flipping the reimbursement formula in his two-year budget plan, paying 90 percent of communities’ costs initially but then dropping to a 10 percent reimbursement rate after communities hit a new threshold.

During Thursday’s floor debate, Democrats questioned whether Brakey’s bill was enforceable while lamenting its impact on poor residents. Republicans countered that the current limit for General Assistance can create a disincentive to find work.

Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, said the program was designed to provide a “hand up, not a lifestyle.”

The House could take up the measure as soon as Tuesday.

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