Two Republican State Senators have proposed bills seeking to reform the municipal General Assistance program to provide relief to Maine municipalities struggling to accommodate a recent influx of migrants and asylum seekers entering their communities.
Sen. Eric Brakey (R-Androscoggin) proposed five bills before the Committee on Health and Human Services on Friday, May 5.
The proposed legislation would enact substantial reforms to current regulations governing municipal General Assistance (GA) benefits, in efforts to ensure the limited GA resources are utilized for their intended purposes and provide measures to minimize abuse.
“From conversations with my colleagues, including legislators from Portland, it is generally recognized that this has reached a crisis level,” Brakey stated in his testimony.
“We do not have the resources to take in more people, and yet existing policy continues promising resource we do not have,” said Brakey.
Brakey’s proposed legislation
Proposed bills LD 182 and 183 both propose creating time limits on the maximum amount time recipients would remain eligible for GA benefits.
LD 182 would establish a 9 month time limit on receiving GA benefits for able-bodied adults without dependents.
Under Brakey’s proposed bill, adults aged 18-49 who are not pregnant, do not have any dependents, and who are mentally and physically fit would only be eligible to receive GA benefits for 275 days every 5 years.
Similarly, LD 183 would place a lifetime limit of 5 years on the eligibility for GA benefits on needy families. After a family receives GA benefits for 5 years, they would then become ineligible to receive benefits for a period of 5 years.
Brakey said Maine’s municipal GA officials urged him to propose this time limit as they noticed families were taking advantage of federal benefit programs and municipal GA benefits by switching between the two, making statutory time limits effectively useless, with the tax burden shifting back and forth from the federal and state levels.
LD 268 and 454 both propose establishing municipal and state level residency requirements in order to receive municipal benefits.
These two proposed bills advocate creating a 45 day municipal residency requirement and a 180 day state residency requirement to be eligible to receive municipal GA benefits.
Brakey argued that his residency requirement proposals are meant to prioritize current Maine residents over non-residents who enter the Maine solely for the purpose of receiving benefits.
Under Brakey’s proposed bills those residents who pay into the municipal GA system would still be eligible for assistance, while removing what he calls a “poor incentive structure” functioning as a welfare magnet to non-residents, including migrants.
LD 364 proposes to prohibit the use of municipal GA as a replacement of current available resources, attempting to ensure GA benefits are only taken as a last resort, as intended.
Under LD 364 beneficiaries of municipal GA benefits who voluntarily abandon immediately available resources would be ineligible for benefits for a period of 120 days.
Not only would this help GA function properly as a last resort, Brakey argued, but it would also help prevent recipients of GA benefits moving from community to community looking for better situations without just cause, taking up resources for those that have no other options available to them.
What’s wrong with the current GA program?
A major issue with the GA program as it stands is that there is no electronic database cataloguing municipalities where asylum seekers or migrants are already registered for GA benefits.
This means that it becomes incredibly difficult for municipal GA directors to cross-check with other municipalities as to whether someone is already registered in a different municipality.
In Sanford, where over 100 migrants were dropped off over the course of last week, this proved to be a tremendous issue.
“Everybody talks about the impacts of the asylum seekers and needing to address them and such,” Sanford City Manager Steven Buck told the Maine Wire. “Has anybody considered what its doing to all the staff in these local offices?”
City Manager Buck, whose town of 22,000 had to deal with continuous van loads of migrants being dropped off in front of their City Hall last week, said the town quickly hit capacity for GA benefits.
Buck stated in Tuesday’s emergency City Council meeting that they had to turn away many of those who had arrived in Sanford after discovering that they were already registered for municipal GA benefits in Sanford. It’s illegal for an individual to receive benefits simultaneously from multiple municipalities.
Later in the meeting he added that creating a cross-checking database for GA benefits would be easy, a quick fix the State Government could take action on immediately.
Because Sanford has hit capacity on all available sheltering options and essential services, migrants who wish to apply for a housing vouchers are left searching for options on their own.
There are only two hotels in Sanford that accept GA housing vouchers, and those businesses will stop accepting the vouchers this summer when tourism season begins, at which time the asylum seekers will be turned out onto the street and left to self-direct housing options.
How are migrants, most of whom do not speak English, expected to find housing options on their own during what is already a housing shortage in Maine?
“Now they have to self-direct, come on, how is that going to work? They can’t self direct,” Buck stated in the interview. “We can’t take in a hundred plus a day when there’s no available lodging here.”
Buck said a recently hired fire department employee who moved to Sanford from Aroostook County had a difficult time finding a one-bed apartment in the area. Even if migrants can get housing vouchers, they’re likely to face similar difficulties as they search for housing.
Sanford shows the cost of a flawed GA program
Sanford allocated $155,000 to their municipal General Assistance program for FY 2022-2023, but as of Tuesday’s emergency City Council meeting they had spent $483,724 on GA services, exceeding their budget by $327,724.37.
With 8 weeks remaining in the fiscal year, City Manager Buck stated on Tuesday that Sanford is still waiting for the 70 percent state reimbursement for municipal GA spending.
On April 13, Sen. Marianne Moore (R-Washington) proposed LD 1664, “An Act to Increase Reimbursement Under the General Assistance Program,” which advocates raising this state reimbursement from 70 to 90 percent.
Sen. Moore’s proposed bill has garnered bipartisan support, including a co-sponsorship from House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland).
In a May 5 hearing before the Senate HHS Committee, Cullen Ryan, Executive Director of Community Housing of Maine (CHOM) presented testimony in support of LD 1664.
“The financial burden caused by the current reimbursement rate is too much of a barrier for most municipalities to overcome, causing people to leave their communities for larger service center areas,” Ryan testified.
Later in the hearing, James Myall, an Economic Policy Analyst for the Maine Center for Economic Policy (MECEP), also voiced support for Moore’s proposal.
“Increasing the state’s reimbursement to municipalities for the GA program is one of the most effective things this committee could do to improve the program,” Myall said. “It would recognize that the GA program deals with problems which are not, in fact, local, but statewide.”
At Tuesday’s emergency meeting, members of the Sanford City Council expressed support for Sen. Moore’s proposed reimbursement increase.
While raising state reimbursement for municipal GA expenditures to 90 percent may alleviate some of the immediate burden on Maine municipalities, Sanford City Manager Buck remains aggravated with the lack of support from federal and state partners.
“At the end of the day, here at the local level, as a municipal entity and a municipal provider, we’re the ones picking up the pieces,” Buck said.
Buck said he had pleaded with Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) for more resources to no avail.
“There’s no federal money flowing here to Sanford to address any of this. There’s no coordination with federal entities to address any of this here in Sanford.”
Moore’s legislative proposal may provide financial relief to Sanford and other municipalities affected by Maine’s migrant crisis.
Although LD 1664 may provide breathing room for municipal budgets, the money to cover GA benefits for Mainers and migrants ultimately comes from the same place: Maine taxpayers.