Mainers who obtain General Assistance fraudulently would have to begin repaying municipalities before qualifying for additional welfare benefits, under a proposal that won bipartisan support from a legislative committee on Wednesday.

The Health and Human Services Committee tabled or recommended rejection of several controversial welfare reform bills, including a 180-day residency requirement for welfare recipients and a requirement that the state administer General Assistance, rather than municipalities.

But after long discussions, Democrats and Republicans on the committee agreed on the need to close a loophole that allows people who defraud the General Assistance program to qualify for additional benefits after just 120 days.

“We do, unfortunately, have people who think it is a joke and do come back on the 121st day, and I have to tell you: it is insulting,” said Vicky Edgerly, health and welfare director for the city of Biddeford.

Under a compromise that received unanimous support from committee members present Wednesday, people found to have supplied false information to receive General Assistance could still be eligible for help on the 121st day. But they would first have to repay the amount they received fraudulently or agree to a repayment plan with municipal officials. The amended bill will now be considered by the full Legislature.

Under current law, municipalities can require repayment only after a “fair hearing” process with a hearing officer or through a court case. But General Assistance administrators told lawmakers that few cases reach that point, especially with accused offenders who know they will be ordered to repay the municipality. As a result, most fraudulently obtained benefits are never repaid.

“We are talking about a few individuals who know all of the loopholes,” said Dorothy Meagher, Auburn’s director of health and social services.

The original version of the bill, L.D. 722, would have prevented anyone “who makes any false representation” to obtain General Assistance to reimburse the municipality before becoming eligible again for benefits. Democrats on the committee raised concerns that such a rigid standard could cause hardship to people who are willing to pay back the money but need emergency assistance before the debt is repaid.

The compromise endorsed by the committee appears to allow municipal officials to deny benefits to people who are not making a “good faith” effort to repay the past benefits.

“I think we are trying to make a first step here,” said Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland. “I don’t think we are going to solve all of the problems.”

On the other welfare reform proposals, the majority of committee members:

n Recommended rejection of L.D. 368, to make people ineligible for General Assistance if they have already exhausted the 60-month limit for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

n Tabled L.D. 369, to prohibit municipalities from providing General Assistance to asylum seekers and other non-citizen immigrants who the Maine Department of Health and Human Services has deemed ineligible for welfare.

n Recommended rejection of L.D. 632, which would have made the state responsible for administering General Assistance. The program is now administered by municipalities any is jointly funded by towns and the state.

n Recommended rejection of L.D. 1035, to create a nine-month time limit on General Assistance benefits.

n Tabled L.D. 1037, which would have required a 180-day residence period for applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, food stamps and General Assistance. Similar welfare residency requirements have been deemed unconstitutional by the courts.

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

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