In an effort to close a $112 million Medicaid shortfall in the state budget, the LePage administration wants to cut back on the amount of money the state gives municipalities for general assistance programs. The governor is proposing to cap total state spending on general assistance through June 30th at $10.1 million, about $1.5 million less than last year. As A.J. Higgins reports, community advocates converged on the State House today and urged lawmakers to fully fund the program.
For many Mainers, local general assistance programs often mean the difference between some form of shelter and living on the street. At Homeless Voices for Justice, a statewide group that advocates for the poor, Thomas Ptacek says Maine’s safety net is already stretched to the breaking point for those trying to survive a winter without a permanent roof over their heads.
And now, Gov. LePage is proposing to stretch it even further, by imposing a $10.0 million cap on general assistance funds for the poor. With much of that already spent this year, the cap would leave the state with less than $4 million to return to municipalities through June 30th.
Ptacek wonders if the money can last that long. "What will shelters do if the proposed GA cap puts more people into homelessness?" he asks.
Others say it’s a cutback in funding for some of Maine’s poorest residents at a time when they can least afford it. Dozens of people turned out for a hearing on the supplemental budget cut before the Appropriations Committee. Mark Swann, executive director at Preble Street in Portland, told lawmakers that the need for general assistance funding has never been greater.
"Just last Wednesday when the temperature was below zero we served 512 people at dinner – 512 people in one sitting at one dinner in one soup kitchen," Swann said. "Five hundred and twelve people. I have a hard time even saying that. It was so crowded and so jam-packed that people eventually stopped even looking for a place to sit – there were no seats – they just sat down where they stood."
Many of the state’s large service center communities, such as Portland, Lewiston and Bangor, see the general assistance cap as just another in a series of policy changes by the LePage administration that shift costs previously bourne by the state onto local property taxpayers.
The governor’s supplemental budget also cuts $12.6 million in general purpose aid for k-12 education. And in the proposed budget for the next two years, LePage plans to temporarily eliminate nearly $100 million in municipal revenue-sharing funds. In his weekend radio message, LePage accused the Maine Municipal Association of making the funding cuts sound worse than they really are.
"Unfortunately, information distributed by the Maine Municipal Assoication is not accurate and completly self-serving," LePage said. "MMA claims that municipalities will lose $284 million over the next two years. What they don’t tell you is that revenue sharing has never been fully funded dating back to my predecessor."
At MMA, Geoff Herman defends his organization’s characterization of the LePage cuts, which he says are another shift onto the local property taxpayers.
"The numbers that we used are based on what current law says the distribution to revenue sharing should be, so our focus is what’s in the proposed budget would discontinue current law, and our obligation was to identify what current law says should be distributed," Herman said.
State Rep. Peggy Rotundo, House chair of the Appropriations Committee says she hopes that the committee can find a way to soften the blow of the proposed general assistance cuts opposed by the MMA and other agencies.
"There’s a great concern about this and the implications of it, and what this would mean to communities, either in terms of great cost shift, in terms of their local property taxes or the lack of services which would create all sorts of other problems like greater homelessness," Rotundo says.
Lawmakers on the panel are expected to wrap up the series of public hearings this week, as they prepare for another round of hearings on the two-year state budget.