Gov. Paul LePage launched his first attempt at welfare reform Thursday, proposing to save about $20 million over two years by eliminating a variety of benefits for new immigrants and refugees who are not yet U.S. citizens.

“Maine was built by immigrants,” LePage said in his first budget address. “Maine must always be a welcoming place for those who seek an opportunity to advance through hard work and self-reliance.”

But, LePage said, Maine should no longer be “one of just a few places in the country that offers ‘welfare-on-day-one,’ for legal non-citizens.”

His proposal would make legal non-citizen residents ineligible for MaineCare, food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families during their first five years of residency in the state.

LePage had made welfare reform a centerpiece of his campaign, so the proposals didn’t come as a surprise to anyone. And they were swiftly denounced by Democrats and advocates for the poor, setting the stage for a contentious debate on the future of Maine’s safety net programs.

“We don’t think a lot of those initiatives are based on facts,” said Sarah Gagne-Holmes, director of Maine Equal Justice Partners.

“The governor says he wants to take care of vulnerable people, but he’s not showing it here,” said Christoper St. John, director of the Maine Center for Economic Policy.

St. John said the cut in welfare benefits is roughly equal to a proposed reduction in estate taxes for wealthy Mainers.

State Rep. Mark Eves, D-South Berwick and a member of the Health and Human Services Committee, said lawmakers will be looking for more details, but are clearly bracing to take on the new administration.

“This is a pattern of basing policy decisions on stereotypes instead of data and fact,” Eves said. “I really see that as a way to punish people who are here legally and doing all the right things, paying taxes and (trying) to improve their lot in life. … Why are we singling out and targeting a very narrow portion of our population?”

Along with cutting off the benefits to non-citizens, LePage proposed three other welfare reforms as part of his budget:

Eliminate Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits for families who have received aid for more than five years in total. It wasn’t clear whether the state would make any exceptions for those with disabilities.

Require MaineCare recipients to contribute to the cost of health coverage based on their ability to pay.

Require anyone ever convicted of drug offenses to undergo drug testing as part of their participation in welfare programs.

LePage did not estimate any savings based on those proposals, and the budget impacts of those changes are expected to be modest.

The biggest budget savings clearly would come from the restrictions for non-citzens, officials said.

Removing about 2,700 non-citizens from the MaineCare program, for example, would save about $8 million a year, according to Dan Demeritt, spokesman for the governor.

The change also would save about $763,000 in state-funded Food Supplements, or food stamps, and $150,000 in state-funded TANF.

More financial details will be released today, Demeritt said.

The federal government stopped contributing to the benefits for new non-citizens over their first five years in the U.S. as part of the welfare reforms enacted in the mid-1990s. Now it is up to states to pay the full costs, if they choose to.

While about 16 states provide temporary assistance benefits to non-citizens, for example, Maine is one of a smaller number of states to still provide a full array of benefits.

“In a time of limited resources, here you have a Maine welfare program that 45 states don’t have,” said Tarren Bragdon, the director of the Maine Heritage Policy Center. Bragdon helped shape the welfare proposals as part of LePage’s transition team.

“It’s really about limited resources and you have to prioritize those resources,” he said. “When they are newly arrived in the United States it does make sense to have a period of time” before they become eligible for the aid.

Refugees who are resettled in Maine and other states receive federal assistance for eight months. But that is often not enough, said Malvina Gregory, interim director of Catholic Charities Maine Refugee and Immigration Services.

“It’s a very complicated legal process to become a citizen. It doesn’t happen immediately and the supports that come from a national level have been significantly reduced,” Gregory said. “A lot of people coming to the United States dream of coming here and working and having the American dream, and it’s really a tough shock for them, sometimes, that for a period of time they will need some assistance. I would be really concerned about limitations put on our social safety nets when our economy is struggling so much.”

Gregory and others said the proposals won’t eliminate the need for assistance programs, or the costs.

People in crisis will instead rely on municipal general assistance or charity medical care provided by hospitals, they said.

Advocates for the poor also said the changes won’t have any effect on the number of refugees or immigrants who move to Maine. Catholic Charities, for example, helps resettle 250 to 300 refugees a year to Maine. Others resettle here from other cities, often to be near family or community supports.

“I don’t see people saying, ‘I’m going to come to Maine because I can get welfare,”‘ Gregory said. “We see people saying, ‘I’m coming to Maine because it’s safe and it’s good for raising my children and I don’t have to lock my doors.’ “

Robyn Merrill, policy analyst with Maine Equal Justice Partners, said more welfare recipients leave the state than come to Maine.

“It’s a myth that people are flocking to Maine because it’s a sanctuary,” she said. “This would affect people who are here legally, coming from war-torn countries, coming here with very little. The need is there.”

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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