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Legislative Committee Takes Up Bills to Overhaul General Assistance

General assistance — the welfare program that helps low-income Mainers with rent, food and other necessities — is administered by local cities and towns, but most of the cost is picked up by the state. Maine Gov. Paul LePage wants to eliminate that state funding, and lawmakers are also considering other bills designed to make it more difficult to get general assistance benefits.

Among the proposals before the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee is one that would increase the ineligibility penalty for falsifying a general assistance application. Another would limit the amount of benefits to 275 days in a five-year period for a person without dependents and who can work. A third would penalize those who apply for general assistance even though they have usable assets.

Sen. Eric Brakey, a Republican from Auburn, sponsored all three bills.

“The general assistance program, again, is intended as a safety net for short-term, acute emergencies. However, Maine taxpayers increasingly find themselves paying general assistance for longer-term purposes,” he says.

The LePage administration testified in support of the bills, but they drew broad opposition. Norman Maze of Shalom House in Portland says people on general assistance are among the poorest of the poor.

“By creating even more barriers to these emergency funds for our neighbors in need, they will endure even greater suffering,” he says.

Several opponents testified that taxpayers are already protected from fraud and abuse in the program.

“We think the general assistance program is critical to low-income Mainers, that it has protections to make sure that only needy people receive the benefit and these additional requirements are just going to harm people without saving the state any money,” says Frank D’Allesandro, a staff attorney with Pine Tree Legal Assistance.

And Diocese of Portland spokeswoman Suzanne Lafreniere says the state needs to be compassionate in its treatment of the poor and help them through hard times. She says it’s a mistake to think that churches and other groups can make up for the loss of state funds.

“Faith communities and not-for-profits in Maine cannot make up the difference,” she says. “There will be definite casualties to these cuts. It is unfortunate that we have to come it feels like every two years to make this point.”

Larger cities, such as Bangor and Portland, say they attract people from smaller communities that don’t have needed services.

One measure before the committee would shift the responsibility for paying the local share of the program back to an applicant’s home community, rather than the town in which they applied for help.