Gov. Paul LePage took aim at Portland on Tuesday, saying the city has been the leader in misusing state funds because it provides General Assistance welfare benefits to “illegal immigrants.”

LePage has been criticized for applying the term “illegals” to immigrants who arrived legally and are seeking political asylum, a group that the Legislature decided is eligible for benefits. Portland also provides benefits to immigrants who have not yet applied for asylum, although it does not use state funds for that aid.

In his current budget proposal, LePage is asking the Legislature to eliminate state funding for the General Assistance program, which cities and towns use to provide vouchers for housing or other basic needs to Mainers with no other way to pay for them. The roughly $14.5 million spent on the program each year represents about 0.4 percent of the state’s total annual spending.

A fraction of that spending is used to assist immigrants, although LePage has emphasized the city’s support of immigrants in his efforts to cut back or eliminate General Assistance.

“You follow the rules, there would have been no problems, but if you try to not follow the rules and you use the money for illegal immigrants, then you get what you pay for,” LePage said during his weekly appearance on the “George Hale and Ric Tyler Show” broadcast on Bangor-based radio station WVOM. “The Maine people did not buy into you breaking the laws, and Portland in particular was the leader of breaking the laws.”

Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling objected to the governor’s comments.

“Today, without a shred of evidence and contrary to what his staff has told the city, the governor accused Portland of violating state law,” Strimling said in a prepared statement. “I personally called him this afternoon to request any evidence to support his claim and/or for him to retract the statement. I look forward to his return call. In the meantime, I welcome a visit by the governor anytime to show him the excellent services we provide and the thorough steps our city staff takes to ensure full compliance with the law.”

Later Tuesday, Strimling said he had a chance to speak with LePage and the governor told him he was speaking about the past when he said Portland broke the law.

“He told me he has no reason to believe anything inappropriate is going on now,” Strimling said.

Peter Steele, LePage’s communications director, confirmed that the governor spoke with Strimling and had been referring to Portland’s past practices during his radio interview.

LAW ENACTED LAST YEAR GUIDES ELIGIBILITY

LePage did not provide any specific details Tuesday about why he thinks Portland has broken the law. However, for years he has been at odds with the city’s government because Portland has provided assistance to immigrants seeking asylum in Maine while he has argued they should not be eligible.

A state law enacted last year over the governor’s objection granted eligibility for anyone “who is lawfully present in the United States or who is pursuing a lawful process to apply for immigration relief.” Assistance was capped at two years.

Non-citizens can file for asylum within one year of entering the U.S., regardless of how they arrived in the country. The vast majority of asylum seekers in Maine arrive on student, work or visitation visas that expire within six months, meaning they have six months to apply for asylum before facing possible deportation. They are not subject to deportation once they have applied for asylum, a long and complicated process that can take years because of a growing national backlog.

Meanwhile, federal law prohibits asylum seekers from receiving legal work permits until at least six months after they apply, a situation that leads some to apply for city aid.

The potential elimination of all state General Assistance funding would affect all communities, but especially the state’s largest cities. The bulk of the General Assistance money paid out by the state, just over $10 million, is used by Portland, Lewiston and Bangor.

‘If they want to take education money and put it in for illegal immigrants, by all means, go ahead and do it, but do it with your money, not state money.’

— Gov. Paul LePage on WVOM

Though only a portion of that aid goes to immigrants, they have been at the center of the long-running clash between Portland and the LePage administration.

In 2014, LePage sought to prevent immigrants who enter the country legally and then apply for political asylum from receiving state benefits until they are able to receive federal authorization to work. After his initial effort failed through the official state rulemaking process, the administration informed municipalities that it would no longer reimburse communities that continued to provide assistance to asylum seekers, citing a federal law enacted under President Clinton in 1996.

Portland, along with the Maine Municipal Association, sued the administration and received a split ruling from a Superior Court judge in 2015. Justice Thomas Warren ruled that the LePage administration was able to withhold the disputed reimbursement from municipalities, but that it should have followed proper rulemaking procedures, which it didn’t do.

After the ruling, the Legislature passed a bill making some non-citizens eligible for General Assistance. LePage promised to veto the bill, but missed the deadline and it became law.

The LePage administration then issued new eligibility rules last year that prompted the Portland City Council in December to amend the city’s ordinance so that only funds raised from property taxes would be used for immigrants who are not eligible under the state program.

The city had estimated that about 90 immigrants would lose state eligibility because they had not yet filed asylum applications. Immigrants now eligible for city assistance and not state assistance also include unaccompanied minors, or children who arrive without a legal guardian.

City officials have estimated that providing General Assistance to immigrants not eligible for state aid will cost the city about $265,000 in 2017.

HINTING OF CURRENT IMPROPER PAYMENTS

LePage suggested during his radio comments that Portland is still using state money to help immigrants he believes should not be eligible.

“My point is, if they want to do what they do, then let them fund it,” LePage said. “If they want to take education money and put it in for illegal immigrants, by all means, go ahead and do it, but do it with your money, not state money.”

While LePage highlighted Portland in his comments, he said all of the state’s larger cities were misusing the program. “Actually, it happens everywhere, but Portland was the major leader,” he said.

LePage also said he believes state law made towns and cities responsible for their poor, and that the state should not be paying for General Assistance at all. “If you look at the law, they are the overseer of the poor. It’s not the responsibility of the state, it’s the responsibility of the local community,” he said.

He said cutting state funding for the program would not be a cost-shift to local property taxpayers because the program was originally funded by municipalities until the state began sharing that cost in an attempt to provide local property-tax relief.

“The state is just putting its foot down and saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute, this was your program, we didn’t ask for this,’ ” LePage said. “‘If you feel you need it, then you pay for it.’”

The General Assistance program is one of the state’s oldest welfare benefits and dates to before Maine had statehood. The program was overhauled by the Legislature in the 1970s, eliminating several antiquated and illegal practices such as poor farms. It was also in the 1970s that the Legislature voted to fund the program with state dollars and devised a funding formula to do so.

Elimination of state funding for the program is among a handful of social assistance reforms in LePage’s budget proposal.

Others include new limits on the length of time a family can receive support from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, a cash welfare benefit funded with state and federal dollars. Families eligible for the benefit are currently limited to 60 months, but LePage’s budget caps the program at 30 months.

The governor’s budget proposal also would tighten eligibility requirements for the state’s Medicaid program, MaineCare, by lowering the income standard for parents with children to 40 percent of the federal poverty guideline. Advocates for the poor have said that change means as many as 20,000 people would lose their health coverage.

LePage previously has tried to alter or eliminate funding for the program, but those efforts have been rejected by the Legislature.

CEASE-FIRE WITH PORTLAND MAY BE OVER

LePage’s attack on Portland came after a year-long cease fire with Maine’s largest city. He frequently attacked Portland during former Mayor Michael Brennan’s four-year term. When Brennan was up for re-election in 2015, LePage went so far as to publicly state his support for Strimling in his successful bid to unseat the incumbent.

On several occasions in 2016, LePage met with Strimling, whom the governor had come to know and respect for Strimling’s tenure at LearningWorks, a Portland nonprofit that helps at-risk children. The two met early in Strimling’s term to talk policy over a steak dinner at the Blaine House.

But Strimling has recently called on the city to extend voting rights to non-citizens who are in the United States legally – a proposal that conservative Republicans, including LePage, are likely to oppose.

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

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