AUGUSTA — Immigrants and advocates for low-income Mainers urged lawmakers Wednesday to reject welfare changes in Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed budget that they warned would hurt families and drive up municipal budgets.

The LePage administration has proposed eliminating state funding for General Assistance, imposing a three-year lifetime limit on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and prohibiting asylum seekers from receiving welfare benefits. Other welfare proposals in LePage’s two-year, $6.8 billion budget would add Maine to the dozen-plus states that exclude convicted drug felons from receiving TANF or food stamps and would eliminate most “good cause” exemptions for sanctions that could otherwise cause recipients to lose welfare benefits.

Similar proposals from the LePage administration have failed in the past, and Democratic lawmakers have voiced strong concerns about aspects of the current budget.

Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew said the changes were needed to align Maine with federal policies – particularly when it comes to non-citizen immigrants – and to support other aspects of LePage’s budget. Specifically, Mayhew told members of the two legislative committees reviewing the budget that the tax cuts and other provisions were aimed at revitalizing Maine’s economy to help create the jobs needed by those who rely on DHHS welfare programs.

“This budget is intended to support a reduction in the overall state budget for the Department of Health and Human Services in order to reduce the tax burden of the state, to promote greater job opportunities for individuals, to help support them on a pathway to employment and self-sufficiency and prosperity,” Mayhew told lawmakers. “That is the focus of these reforms and these changes, to help support a brighter future for these individuals as opposed to dependency on these programs.”

But during roughly seven hours of testimony, advocates for the poor as well as recent immigrants to Maine and municipal officials decried the proposed cuts.

In one of the more controversial proposals, LePage is once again attempting to block access to General Assistance, food stamps and TANF for immigrants who have not yet received asylum in the U.S. Under federal law, immigrants can apply for asylum within one year of their entry into the U.S. but must wait at least six months after submitting an application before they can seek work authorization. And federal backlogs extend the time it takes to receive a work permit and a ruling on an asylum application.

Mouna Ismail, a Djibouti native who was granted asylum and now lives in Lewiston, said General Assistance as well as TANF and food stamps helped her to “get on my feet and start to make a better life.” Ismail said she can now support her children – all of whom regard themselves as Americans – by working as an interpreter and a cultural broker at medical facilities.

“But I tell you, this wouldn’t have been possible without the support of GA, TANF and food assistance,” Ismail testified. “These supports helped us feel safe and enabled us to recover from the suffering of our past. I know that if these benefits are interrupted, many mothers and children will be left homeless and hungry.”

Larger cities such as Portland, Bangor and Lewiston were also opposed to LePage’s proposal to eliminate state funding for municipal General Assistance. Those three municipalities receive the lion’s share of roughly $12 million the state spends on General Assistance.

Dawn Stiles, director of health and human services for the city of Portland, warned the ramifications of such as major shift would be “severe” for Maine’s largest city and service center. Responding to a question from a committee member about where individuals would go if they lost housing, Stiles said already crowded shelters would be “overflowing” with citizens, non-citizens and families.

“You would find people, individuals and families sleeping in cars, sleeping in the community, sleeping on park benches, sleeping on the streets. There is no provision in the budget for exemptions for families with children, for the disabled, for those who have not yet acquired language skills to obtain jobs or for those who have not yet received a work permit. And the impact would be throughout the state.”

Democratic lawmakers on the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee and the Health and Human Services Committee spent less time challenging Mayhew on Wednesday than they did during Tuesday’s hearings on other aspects of the DHHS budget. But judging by their questions and past votes, LePage’s proposals to eliminate state funding for General Assistance and to cut off welfare for asylum seekers will face difficult odds in the Legislature.

The committees will continue their work on the budget Thursday. The Legislature must craft a bipartisan compromise capable of winning two-thirds support by June 30.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: KevinMillerPPH

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