Maine’s top human services officials went on the offensive Tuesday over a state finding that two Portland homeless shelters were billing the state for housing people who had thousands of dollars in the bank.

Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew said in media interviews that the finding confirmed the agency’s “serious concerns” that Portland has mismanaged its General Assistance program. Mayhew’s statements illustrate the political ramifications of the audit that targeted welfare spending in Maine’s largest and most liberal city.

Even though many facts about the situation remain unknown, the shelter controversy is likely to reinforce the administration’s allegations of irresponsible use of General Assistance, which is partly reimbursed by the state. More broadly, the finding may lend support to efforts by Gov. Paul LePage and other Republicans to rein in welfare spending and overhaul social services programs.

LePage has proposed a $6.3 billion two-year budget that would make fundamental changes in the state’s tax structure by cutting the individual and corporate income tax rate, increasing the sales tax and extending it to a range of previously untaxed services. While those proposals have dominated political discussions, the budget also takes aim at municipalities by eliminating revenue sharing and encouraging consolidation of services.

SHELTER ISSUE SUPPORTS LEPAGE’S STANCE

Political observers see Portland as the perfect example of the administration’s assertions that cities and towns aren’t doing enough to work together on providing services, reduce spending and use taxpayer money responsibly.

“I think the governor has known for a long time that you can only reduce the size of state government so much, but the real problem in Maine is these redundant services and, from his perspective, poor budgeting decisions that are made across Maine,” said Lance Dutson, a Republican political strategist who is not working with the administration or aligned interest groups. “No municipality is more central to that than Portland.”

Ben Grant, a labor attorney and former chairman of the Maine Democratic Party who also is not connected to the current public debate, agreed that the controversy could bolster the governor’s budget push, as well as offer a secondary benefit to his GA overhaul plan.

Grant said the administration has a proven proficiency with the “power of the anecdote,” specifically as it relates to welfare, an issue that creates a polarizing and lasting impression with the public.

“I think everyone involved in this administration has seen the success that they’ve had with the politics of welfare issues,” he said. “They’re going to continue to push and push and push. I just don’t see them backing down, especially with a Democratic city and a Democratic mayor.

THE POWER OF THE ANECDOTE

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan did not respond to several requests for comment. However, the former Democratic lawmaker told WCSH6-TV that there could be legitimate reasons why people with $20,000 in bank accounts, and one with as much as $161,000 in liquid assets, stayed at city-run shelters.

“I think you have to step back and you have to start looking at the individual cases and why that has occurred, as opposed to there being a widespread practice,” Brennan said. “Oftentimes for clinical reasons or for other factors, that individual may not be able to find other housing, or because of substance abuse issues or mental health issues the shelter is the best option for them.”

Grant believes Brennan’s response is probably the right one. However, even if the mayor is proven right, it may do little to move people with firm views on welfare and how Portland is running its program.

“For a lot of the issues facing low-income people and people hard on their luck, the nuances matter,” Grant said. “It’s hard to paint everyone with the same brush, but when you find a powerful anecdote, that becomes very much lodged in people’s minds. For a lot of people that defines what the issue is about, that powerful anecdote.”

Grant experienced firsthand the persuasiveness of the welfare debate. He was party chairman during a 2014 election in which LePage and Republicans won significant victories. In many races, especially LePage’s re-election campaign, problems and abuse in the welfare system were used as truncheons to bludgeon Democrats for defeating the governor’s slate of welfare changes in 2014.

Much like the Portland shelter controversy, those changes were accompanied and bolstered by high-profile news stories about potential abuse of electronic benefit transfer cards for recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Dutson and Grant weren’t completely convinced that the shelter controversy will have as much influence over the GA debate as the EBT card story did last year.

“What are they trying to say here, that people who have enough money want to live in a shelter?” Grant said.

Added Dutson: “I think it’s pretty easy to understand that the average person wouldn’t want to spend a night in a homeless shelter, or live in a homeless shelter. It’s not like they’re at Club Med or something, so I don’t know if it’s as powerful a story. But I’d guess that there’s more of this anecdotal stuff to come. It’s basically LePage vs. Brennan, or Brennan vs. Mayhew and LePage.”

POLITICAL CAPITAL FOR LEPAGE, MAYHEW

By itself, the debate over GA is disproportionate to its public impact. General Assistance represents $24.3 million, less than 1 percent, of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ proposed $3.2 billion budget for the next two fiscal years. Nonetheless, Dutson said a string of “moral victories on these smaller dollar amounts” gives the administration “more of a mandate to make bigger structural changes.”

Those changes, he said, could play into the governor’s budget. The $6.3 billion proposal would eliminate municipal revenue sharing while providing funding incentives to consolidate municipal services. LePage, meanwhile, has publicly called for stronger county government.

“I really do think that this audit situation has more to do with the revenue sharing struggle and the broader case against municipal waste,” Dutson said.

He and Grant both agreed that Portland is the perfect place to wage the debate.

“From a broader political standpoint, people outside of Portland aren’t as fond of Portland,” Dutson said. “There’s not that many other places in Maine that Republicans can run against.”

Grant wasn’t convinced that targeting Portland will be enough to make the governor’s case for eliminating revenue sharing. However, he believes the approach serves the administration’s short- and long-term political goals. That includes grooming Mayhew for a widely rumored gubernatorial bid in 2018. The administration has fueled those rumors by aggressively promoting the commissioner’s reform efforts at an agency that has had its share of controversies and budget gaps, and by surrounding her with political advisers.

And welfare, he said, has been a winning issue for LePage and Republicans.

“If you’re looking for a long-term political play, that’s the one,” he said. “If you were her, why wouldn’t you? I’m sure that there’s people around Mayhew saying, ‘You can inherit this and take it further.’ “