AUGUSTA — A political group backing Gov. Paul LePage and led by his daughter has orchestrated automated telephone calls to Maine voters criticizing Republican Senate leaders for breaking with the governor and supporting a tentative budget deal with Democrats.

The 90-second recorded call features Lauren LePage urging constituents to contact the Republicans, and repeatedly accuses the lawmakers of conspiring with Democratic leaders to oppose income tax cuts and support welfare funding.

Robocalls also targeted Senate Democratic leaders, asking voters to pressure their lawmakers to back the governor’s tax and welfare reforms.

Maine People Before Politics, the political organization supporting LePage, made calls to constituents of Senate President Michael Thibodeau of Winterport and Majority Leader Sen. Garrett Mason of Lisbon Falls, two longtime allies of the governor. The calls also have been received in districts represented by Republicans and the Democratic member of the Legislature’s budget committee.

Members of the committee, as well as Thibodeau and Mason, are in negotiations with Democrats, including House Speaker Mark Eves of North Berwick, over the state’s next two-year spending plan.

The rift between Republican legislators and LePage centers on proposals rejected by the committee, including the governor’s income tax overhaul and changes to General Assistance, which provides emergency vouchers for housing, food, medication and other necessities.

A copy of one robocall was obtained by the Portland Press Herald. In the recording, Lauren LePage urges the recipient to contact Thibodeau, claiming the Republican is conspiring with Democratic leaders to oppose the governor’s welfare reforms and efforts to reduce the state income tax.

“Maine state senators, including your senator, Mike Thibodeau, are supporting no cuts in income taxes and instead welfare funding for illegal aliens. That’s not right,” Lauren LePage says.

APPARENT ALLY OF GOVERNOR BECOMES TARGET

LePage’s budget proposal included changes in the way the state helps pay for General Assistance distributed by cities and towns. The changes effectively shift funding from cities such as Portland to more rural communities.

The impact of the cuts could be compounded in Portland and other cities by related proposals from LePage to prohibit legal non-citizens – including the city’s growing population of immigrants seeking asylum – from receiving state-funded General Assistance and other aid.

Thibodeau has been a fervent advocate for LePage’s welfare reforms and is the lead sponsor of the governor’s welfare omnibus bill this session. In April, he appeared alongside the governor at a news conference announcing the legislation.

Nevertheless, the automated call repeatedly claims that Thibodeau and other Republicans are siding with “liberal Democrats” on the budget and in opposing welfare reform. Lauren LePage also claims that the budget deal takes money from an income tax cut and provides “taxpayer funding for illegal aliens.” The call makes six references to “illegal aliens” and “welfare,” at one point combining the two terms to describe General Assistance funding as “illegal alien welfare.”

POLITICIZED, CONTROVERSIAL TERMINOLOGY

The issue of welfare and immigration were cornerstones of the governor’s re-election campaign last year. Some political observers have said the governor’s use of welfare as a wedge issue played a key role in his re-election, as well as those of Republican legislators.

The claims in the robocall focus on changes the governor has proposed in the General Assistance program. Those changes have been rejected in the tentative budget deal.

LePage and his close allies have for months repeatedly used the term “illegal aliens” – or sometimes simply “illegals” – even though many of the immigrants in Maine who are receiving General Assistance are living in the country legally, albeit in a sort of bureaucratic limbo. His continued use of the term has angered advocates for Maine’s immigration community.

The majority of immigrants receiving General Assistance in Portland, Lewiston and other Maine cities are actively seeking or plan to seek asylum in the U.S. to escape persecution, physical abuse and in some cases death threats in their home countries, according to statistics provided by Portland. Unlike the refugees from Somalia and Iraq who have arrived in Maine through a federal refugee resettlement program, asylum seekers arrive in the United States on their own accord.

In the case of those living in Maine, the majority travel to the U.S. legally on work or visitation visas from central African countries and then apply for asylum after their visas have expired, as allowed under federal law.

GROUP NOT SHY ABOUT ATTACKING REPUBLICANS

Once an asylum seeker has submitted an application with federal immigration officials, they are protected from deportation in the U.S. However, federal law requires them to wait at least six months after applying for asylum – and oftentimes much longer – before they can even apply for a work permit. As a result, asylum seekers are prohibited by law from working, even though many of those living in Maine are doctors, teachers, business owners or former government employees.

Maine People Before Politics is a nonprofit originally created by Brent Littlefield, the governor’s political adviser. The group’s source of funding is unclear because nonprofit groups can shield donors’ identities. The group’s tax filings, if there are any, have not been published by the Internal Revenue Service in the time the group was created shortly after the governor’s election in 2010.

In 2013, the group launched ads, emails and phone calls during an attempt to defeat a budget compromise engineered by the Democratic leadership and Rep. Kenneth Fredette, the Republican House leader from Newport. The lobbying effort specifically targeted a 0.5 percentage point increase in the sales tax.

This year the governor proposed increasing the sales tax and removing exemptions for some goods and services to pay for an income tax cut.

Fredette ultimately spurned the governor’s call to reject the budget deal and was credited for helping to prevent a shutdown of state government. He referenced the division within the Republican Party and efforts by outside groups to pit Republicans against each other during his floor speech before a vote to override LePage’s veto.

“The level of vitriol I have witnessed and the circular firing squads I have seen among Republicans cannot stand,” Fredette said in 2013.

DISAGREEMENT ON ACCESS TO BUDGET NEGOTIATIONS

This time around, Fredette has placed himself alongside the governor in urging Republicans to reject the budget compromise. On Monday, the House minority leader claimed that he’d been shut out of the budget talks. He also suggested that House Republicans would unite to defeat the budget – an outcome that increases the risk of a government shutdown.

On Tuesday, Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, and the Senate Republican Office issued a statement rebutting Fredette’s claims, saying that phone records and eyewitness accounts “prove that Representative Fredette had ample opportunities throughout the weekend to participate in budget negotiations.”

“The idea that Senate leadership would exclude Ken from budget meetings is beyond absurd,” the statement said. “They are prepared to meet with him at any time. In order to have a place at the table, you first need to come to the table.”

Thibodeau and Mason have not commented on the robocalls by Maine People Before Politics.