Portland's General Assistance costs poised to grow – Press Herald
A provision to allow some immigrant groups to qualify for welfare benefits is stripped from a budget deal Tuesday night.
A state budget compromise approved by lawmakers Tuesday night would reduce state public assistance funding for Portland by about $400,000 a year and redistribute it to communities around the state.
Lawmakers voted Tuesday to change the formula the state uses to help cities and towns pay for General Assistance, a program that provides vouchers for rent, food and other basic needs. The new formula would reduce state funds for Portland and Bangor, but modestly increase them for virtually all other communities in the state.
The overall impact of state budget changes on Portland’s finances was unknown late Tuesday. A separate provision that would have allowed asylum seekers and other non-citizens who legally are in the U.S. to qualify for General Assistance was added to the $6.7 billion budget bill in the Democratic-controlled House, but removed in the Senate in order to retain Republican support for the entire budget deal.
This could cost Portland $4 million to $5 million next year if the city chooses to provide the aid without state funds.
BENEFITS FOR ASYLUM SEEKERS
Last week, a Superior Court judge ruled that without a statutory change by lawmakers, Gov. Paul LePage’s administration could continue to deny reimbursement requests from communities that provide aid to these groups. That ruling could cost Portland roughly $5 million this year alone.
Several House Democrats gave impassioned floor speeches in support of allowing General Assistance to continue flowing to asylum seekers prior to the House vote on the amendment that clarified their eligibility. Without legislative action, lawmakers said, 900 to 1,000 people could be made homeless, further straining already overcrowded shelters.
“A thousand people: that would be the equivalent of a devastating fire leaving a whole neighborhood in many towns full of homeless people or in some places a thousand people would be a whole town,” said Rep. Peter Stuckey, D-Portland.
Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, was one of several lawmakers who urged colleagues to remember their own family roots.
“At the end of the day we cannot turn our backs on these people who desperately need our help,” Gattine said. “If we turn away from them, we are turning away from ourselves and all of the people who brought us here.”
Advocates and asylum seekers filled the State House on Tuesday to push lawmakers to adopt the amendment.
Robyn Merrill, executive director of the Maine Equal Justice Partners, a nonprofit legal aid organization, said immigration advocates would also continue to advocate for the passage of L.D. 369, a stand-alone bill that would make asylum seekers and other non-citizens eligible for General Assistance, but she was not confident it would get enough support to overcome an inevitable veto by the governor.
“The money’s there, they just need to include language to make clear that those who are lawfully present are eligible,” she said. “If this language doesn’t pass, 1,000 people are at serious risk and would become homeless.”
CHANGES TO GENERAL ASSISTANCE FORMULA
The change in the formula for distributing General Assistance would have a smaller, but significant, impact on the Portland budget, which the City Council will take up again next week.
Currently, the state reimburses communities for 50 percent of General Assistance costs. Large service-center communities, including Portland and Bangor, are reimbursed 90 percent of the costs after General Assistance spending reaches a certain threshold, a formula intended to compensate communities with services and opportunities that attract people who are trying to get back on their feet.
Some state officials have called the formula “a perverse incentive” that encourages communities to spend more money in order to get more state funding, even though state audits have routinely found Portland administers its program in accordance with state rules.
LePage, who has been outspoken in his criticism of Portland’s welfare spending, originally proposed a formula that would have reduced state funding levels for communities where spending exceeds a certain threshold. That was rejected by lawmakers.
The budget compromise unveiled Tuesday, however, reimburses all communities for 70 percent of their overall General Assistance expenses, regardless of their population. That change will direct more funding to smaller, rural towns primarily at the expense of Portland and Bangor, the only communities in Maine that distributed enough aid to receive a state subsidy of more than 70 percent in 2014.
That year, Portland spent $10.1 million on General Assistance, with $2 million coming from local property taxes and $8.1 million coming from the state. Under the new formula, Portland would have paid an additional $400,000.
According to the most recent data released in February by the state DHHS, the state funded 76 percent of Bangor’s $2.2 million General Assistance program. The formula change would have increased Bangor’s local costs by $200,000.
DHHS data shows that Lewiston received a 55 percent reimbursement for its nearly $750,000 program. Lewiston would have seen a $112,000 increase in funding under the formula change.
All other Maine communities received a 50 percent subsidy that year and would have received more state funding under the new formula.
n Augusta, which spent $312,700 in 2014, would have received an additional $63,000 from the state, from $156,300 to $219,300;
n Auburn, which spent $139,400 in 2014, would have received an additional $27,900, from $69,700 to $97,600;
n Biddeford, which spent $77,000 in 2014 would have received an additional $15,400, from $38,500 to 53,900;
n Waterville, which spent $89,100 in 2014, would have received an additional $17,800, from $44,600 to $62,400.
Staff writer Kevin Miller contributed to this report.