LePage visit clears up contested budget item

Worried that the proposed state budget would drastically limit access to General Assistance funds for some of Maine’s neediest residents, one state representative invited Gov. Lepage to Portland’s epicenter of social services and cleared up a major "drafting error."

Upon hearing that the governor’s budget proposal called for limiting General Assistance help to once per calendar, District 119 representative Ben Chipman invited LePage to meet with several of his constituents last Friday afternoon as the governor rolled through Portland as part of his "Capitol for a Day" tour.

"Since the governor released the budget, I’d been getting inquiries from constituents concerned about the provisions on General Assistance, so I invited him and he was willing to come by and meet with folks at Preble Street [Resource Center]," said Chipman.

General Assistance, one of the Maine’s major social services programs run by every town in Maine and partly funded by the state, is designed to help people who have fallen on hard times to meet necessary expenses like rent, food, non-food, medication, fuel, utilities, and other essential services.

"It’s basically for those scraping the bottom of the barrel who are on the edge of becoming homeless," said Chipman.

Chipman said there are already restrictions on who may quality for general assistance, and that Portland works hard to make sure the system is not abused.

But a budget proposal released by Lepage called for limiting general assistance help to once per calendar year, meaning that if an applicant received help to pay their monthly living expenses they would not be eligible to receive assistance again for the rest of the year.

"I was very concerned about the impact this would have had on the poorest of the poor," said Chipman. "General Assistance is a critical social safety net. If this budget had been passed as drafted there is no question that our homeless shelters would have quickly filled over capacity and people would have been sleeping on the streets.

Capitalizing on the Governor’s willingness to stop by Preble Street, Chipman lined up a group of about a half-dozen citizens who had used the general assistance program in the past, as well as social workers and city officials who help administer social services.

"These constituents each took turns telling their stories about how they had to use General Assistance in the past because they were in a tough spot," said Chipman, who urged Lepage to consider how many Mainers rely on the financial safety-net. "There was a serious concern about the impact it would have in Portland," Chipman said.

During the conversation at the Preble Street Resource Center, LePage said he never meant to limit the program for Maine residents. Monday, a spokesman for the Governor’s Office confirmed that the budget will be corrected.

"The language in the budget right now does not reflect the Governor’s intent – he does not want a once-a-year limit," said Dan Demeritt, spokesman for the Governor’s Office.

"Through our conversation, the Governor stated that he only intended to place this restriction on people who are from out of state, not those who are Maine residents. Right now the way it reads it doesn’t specify out-of-state vs in-state," said Chipman. "We asked him to clarify this and make a change in the budget proposal, and he agreed to provide some clarification."

Chipman said he appreciated the governor’s swift response in clearing up the drafting error, and taking the time to visit with some of Maine’s neediest residents.

"I’m glad the governor made time to meet with the folks at Preble Street and the pledge of support from his office to correct it," he said. .