AUGUSTA – Lawmakers on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee listened to more than four hours of testimony Wednesday on a half dozen bills sponsored by state Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, aimed at making major changes to the state’s welfare and General Assistance programs.
Among other things, Brakey’s bills would make those who have lost access to benefits under the state and federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program because they reached the 60-month benefit limit also ineligible to receive municipal General Assistance.
General Assistance is a state- and locally-funded program meant to provide financial assistance for basic necessities, including food, housing and medicine to individuals in crisis.
Brakey, the Senate chairman of the committee, said Wednesday the General Assistance program had morphed into a "catchall" welfare system that had seen its price tag double in recent years and that local municipalities, as well as the state, could no longer afford to keep funding the program.
But opponents to Brakey’s proposals, including one that requires a 180-day residency requirement for welfare recipients, said at least half of what was being suggested may be unconstitutional under federal law.
"There are far too many avenues for folks to take advantage of the system and receive benefits that are funded through hardworking Mainers’ tax dollars," Brakey said. "In recent months, it has become abundantly clear that General Assistance is not being administered in the most effective or efficient manner. By implementing certain reforms and ensuring that the state and municipalities are aligned on eligibility requirements, we will be vastly improving Maine’s safety nets."
Also testifying Wednesday was Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald, who said his city is facing a crushing financial burden as it pays ever-increasing amounts of General Assistance benefits to immigrants who have not been granted work permits by the federal government.
Those benefits are also ineligible for reimbursement from the state and were being borne largely by local property taxpayers, Macdonald said.
"Why should we as a municipality be held to pay for these people when the state and federal government don’t want to (pay) anything?" Macdonald asked. "Why do we have to take this on?"
One of Brakey’s bills would allow municipalities to deny General Assistance payments to immigrants who are seeking asylum in the U.S. but who have not yet received permission from the federal government to work.
Macdonald said in many cases, the city could find jobs for those individuals, but city officials’ hands are tied by an immigration system that is fraught with a backlog of asylum cases.
"We cannot afford to take care of those choosing to come to Maine, not for work opportunities, but for welfare opportunities," Brakey said. "We do not want a welfare magnet, attracting individuals to our state looking to sign up on day one for our generous welfare system. We must instead build a strong economic magnet, attracting immigration to Maine because of a vibrant economy with plentiful work opportunities."
But among of those speaking against the proposals were immigrants who said they came to Maine seeking asylum.
Hamet Ly, who lives in Portland, said he has been in Maine for about year after he fled Mauritania, where he feared for his and his family’s lives because he was being persecuted for his religious beliefs after a political uprising by Islamic terrorist groups tried to kill him and his wife.
"I did not come to Maine for General Assistance," Ly told the committee. "I never, ever counted on public aid or benefit in my entire life before I fled my country. I accepted General Assistance because no other legal option was available to me or my family."
Ly, who speaks five languages and holds both bachelor’s and master’s degrees, said prior to leaving Mauritania, he had worked for the U.S. Embassy there as an economic and commercial development assistant for four and a half years. He said that others told him they didn’t come to Maine to cash in on welfare programs but because they feared for their lives.
Others, who had been granted asylum and have since left the state and city welfare rolls, said they were grateful for the help Maine offered them, but they now were living on their own and paying taxes to the state.
Leopold Ndayisabye, another immigrant who was granted asylum, also said he didn’t come to Maine for welfare.
Ndayisabye said he depended on General Assistance from May 2011 to March 2012 and received about $8,000 in benefits. He and Ly also spoke of the myriad of volunteer work they did in their communities while they waited on work permits.
"Due to the help of General Assistance, I was able to stabilize myself and be helpful to others as well," said Ndayisabye, now a legally document permanent citizen and a working taxpayer. "I’m paying my taxes, I’m renting my home, I’m a parent and a student and I’m proud of what I am doing in this country."
Ndayisabye, who works as a multicultural caseworker for Portland nonprofit Preble Street, said those opposed to helping asylum-seeking immigrants were only taking a short-term view of the situation and were not recognizing the long-term benefits the state gains by bringing new and skilled workers into a state that is frequently cited as having an aging workforce.
"Why are we stacking on my beginning and not talking about where I am today?" Ndayisabye asked. "We should be talking about the whole process, which is much more important."
He also noted that the $8,000 he took was not money in his pocket but money that went back into the local economy to buy shelter, food and the basic necessities for his family.
Others speaking on Brakey’s proposals Wednesday voiced frustration that local cities and towns were stuck helping those in need because of failed immigration policy and a failure by the federal government to adequately support the asylum-seeking immigrants it allows into the country.
But despite concerns some of his legislation may not pass Constitutional muster, Brakey said Maine should move forward with residency requirements because Maine simply couldn’t afford to cover the costs.
"Anyone arriving in Maine to seek the American Dream – an opportunity to find honest work, put food on the table for their family and contribute to our Maine economy – should be welcomed with open arms," Brakey said. "But Maine is a poor rural state with a very generous welfare system."
Others testifying on Wednesday noted there was an overemphasis being placed on the General Assistance program, which makes up less than 1 percent of the state’s total budget.
Rick Whiting, an Auburn resident and chairman of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, urged the committee to "step back a minute and look at the big picture." He said the coalition opposed the bills.
"If you look at the percentage, I think it’s been overblown in the media in terms of its impact on the state budget," Whiting said. "Certainly worthy of consideration and worthy of discussion, but I think it’s been overblown."
Whiting said 80 percent of General Assistance funds went to rent payments.
"So when you cut General Assistance, you are, in effect, raising homelessness," Whiting told the committee.
Brakey’s bills will be the subject of a work session before the committee before going to the full Senate for consideration in the weeks ahead.