The Maine Municipal Association and the cities of Portland and Westbrook, which are locked in a legal dispute with the state Department of Health and Human Services over General Assistance aid administered to undocumented immigrants, asked a federal judge on Friday to have their lawsuit decided in state court.

The state is seeking to move the lawsuit from Cumberland County Superior Court to U.S. District Court in Portland, citing a 1996 federal law on which it was basing its argument.

A motion filed Friday by the MMA on its behalf and that of the two cities argues that although a federal law is at issue, the case should be heard in Superior Court because the original petitioners, the MMA, are relying on state law to make their case.

The lawsuit, filed in June, asked a Superior Court judge to decide whether a directive issued in May by the LePage administration and DHHS for cities and towns to cease offering assistance to undocumented immigrants is legally enforceable, and whether the agency overstepped its regulatory authority when Gov. Paul LePage threatened to withhold all General Assistance aid to communities that did not comply.

General Assistance is a form of public welfare – administered by cities and towns and paid for partly by the state – for people who need help with basic necessities such as food, housing and heat in the winter.

In Portland, hundreds of undocumented immigrants seek aid each month, totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars. Last year, the state gave Portland $7 million in General Assistance aid.

The state has argued that the rule change enforces a 1996 federal law that prohibits spending taxpayer dollars on aid for undocumented immigrants.

Maine Attorney General Janet T. Mills opposed the policy change and questioned its legality, saying the policy directive circumvented the regular rule-making process.

“Since there is no authority for this change, there is also no authority for the administration to withhold funds,” Mills wrote in her statement of opposition. “If the administration desires to change policy based on an 18-year-old federal statute, it must do so in accordance with the Maine Constitution and law, with transparency and public input, and without shifting the burden onto cash-strapped towns.”

The Maine Municipal Association, which advises municipalities on policy and legal questions, feared that cities and towns would be challenged in court no matter whose instructions they followed, and filed the lawsuit to ask for a judge’s guidance.

The MMA on Friday also asked the federal court to expedite its decision.

LePage, who is running for his second term in office, has made welfare reform a centerpiece of his re-election campaign and has repeatedly sought to clamp down on welfare fraud and abuse.

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

mbyrne@pressherald.com

Twitter: MattByrnePPH