The Rev. Ruben Ruganza said he “escaped death” 10 times amid the tribal, ethnic and political conflicts that tore apart the Democratic Republic of Congo before he finally fled his native country and made his way to Portland in 2007.

Now a U.S. citizen and a pastor at a Portland church, Ruganza credited the welfare program known as General Assistance for helping provide the temporary help he needed to start building a new life for his family in Maine.

“I want to remind all of you that assisting asylum seekers is not wasting money, like many think, but is investing in people, like it did for me and for many others,” Ruganza told lawmakers who are considering changes to Maine’s General Assistance program. “And the state of Maine will benefit from that.”

Ruganza was one of dozens of immigrants, clergy members and municipal officials who testified Tuesday against LePage administration budget proposals to change General Assistance, the temporary welfare program administered by towns and partly funded by the state.

As part of Gov. Paul LePage’s focus on welfare reform, the administration wants to stop providing General Assistance as well as state-funded food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to legal non-citizens living in Maine. The administration also has proposed changes to the General Assistance reimbursement formula that would benefit more than 230 towns financially, but would cost Portland $4.3 million.

A ‘RE-PRIORITIZATION’ OF STATE SPENDING

Although the $24 million allotted for General Assistance makes up less than 1 percent of LePage’s $6.3 billion budget proposal, the welfare debate is one of the high-profile policy fights facing state lawmakers as they review his plan to cut income taxes, raise sales taxes and fundamentally alter the state’s financial relationship with communities.

Mary Mayhew, commissioner of Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services, told lawmakers the various welfare changes and other proposals in the DHHS budget reflect a “re-prioritization” of how state money is spent. Mayhew noted that the governor’s budget would invest in mental health programs and nursing homes, and would reduce the waiting list for programs for people with developmental and physical disabilities.

The changes also would bring Maine into compliance with federal law that restricts welfare benefits to non-citizens, Mayhew said, although the administration’s critics contest that assertion.

“What we are seeking to invest in cannot be lost in this public discussion around the budget,” Mayhew told reporters after talking with the committee members. “Those are significant investments. This isn’t about just cutting the department. It is about aligning the resources with higher priorities.”

However, talk of re-prioritization did not sit well with some members of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee and the Health and Human Services Committee. Democrats pressed Mayhew on what would happen to the asylum seekers and other legal non-citizens who cannot legally work because of mandatory federal waiting periods, but would no longer qualify for General Assistance or food stamps.

“We have people in the state who are here absolutely legally, they are unable to work and they are on these programs because there are no other alternatives for them,” said Rep. Erik Jorgensen, D-Portland. “So I guess my question is: What is going to happen to this population?”

SUSTENANCE FOR ASYLUM-SEEKERS

LePage’s welfare-related budget proposals would have a disproportionate impact on Portland, which is both the state’s largest service sector and a destination for asylum-seeking immigrants.

Portland’s General Assistance budget increased from $5.6 million in 2009 to roughly $10 million last year. The largest factor in that increase is Portland’s status as a destination for immigrants fleeing war and political turmoil in central African nations. The vast majority of Maine’s asylum-seeking population arrive in the U.S. legally with work, student or visitation visas, but later apply for asylum, a process that often takes years.

The number of General Assistance recipients living in Portland on legal immigration visas increased by 297 percent between fiscal years 2011 and 2014, while immigrants categorized as “asylum pending” increased by 228 percent. At the same time, the number of other General Assistance clients in the city fell by 27 percent.

Among those are Vincent Mwamba and his wife, Victorine. A former judge in Congo, Mwamba said his wife and his daughters were raped and his son badly beaten because he refused a government order to convict an innocent man.

Mwamba said he volunteers nearly 30 hours each week at Goodwill and at Mercy Hospital while he takes English and computer classes. He applied for asylum two years ago, but has yet to receive an interview because of the backlogged federal immigration system. Under LePage’s budget proposal, he would lose state-funded Supplemental Security Income because he is a legal non-citizen.

“We won’t be able to buy food to eat,” Mwamba said in French alongside an interpreter. “We won’t even be able to buy a bus ticket to leave. We will have to go back to the shelter.”

Roughly 70 people signed up to testify to the committees Tuesday, including several dozen speakers who were granted asylum or are current applicants for asylum. Only a handful indicated that they supported the governor’s welfare proposals.

“Why this issue is before us perplexes me,” said Father Michael Seavey, pastor of five Roman Catholic parishes in the Portland area, many of which have large contingents of refugees and people from Africa who were given asylum. “Providing assistance to these people should be the least controversial of all issues related to General Assistance.”

‘VERY SERIOUS’ SOCIAL CONSEQUENCES

Calling Portland an “outlier” with overly general General Assistance policies, the LePage administration has proposed changes to the reimbursement formula that would reduce state payments to the city by $4.3 million. The roughly $5 million saved under the new reimbursement formula would be statutorily dedicated to reducing a more than 1,000-person waiting list for services to those with physical or developmental disabilities, Mayhew said.

But Portland Mayor Michael Brennan warned that the decision on General Assistance could be the most important one the committee makes this year. That’s because the city’s bond counsel has warned that Portland’s bond rating could take a hit if the city is forced to dip into its financial reserves to cover $7 million to $8 million in General Assistance reimbursements that the city expected to receive from the state.

“If our bond rating is affected, it affects surrounding communities … in terms of what your bond rating is going to be,” Brennan said. “So you have the financial center of the state that produces an incredible amount of jobs, taxes and other economic vitality for the state, that is now in financial jeopardy.”

Also, Brennan said that more than 900 people – the equivalent of a small town in Maine – would potentially become homeless if the General Assistance policy changes proposed in the budget become law.

“So this is very serious to us in terms of its social consequences,” Brennan said.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

kmiller@pressherald.com

Twitter: KevinMillerPPH