Proposed cuts to the state-mandated General Assistance program, which serves as an emergency resource for individuals who have exhausted all other options (applicants must demonstrate need and have liquidated all accounts in order to qualify), threaten to shift costs to Portland taxpayers and increase the city's "service center" burden, according to Mayor Michael Brennan.
The cuts are part of Governor Paul LePage's second supplemental budget, which will be addressed by lawmakers in Augusta before the session closes on April 18.
Currently, state law requires that municipalities administer General Assistance (GA), which comes in the form of vouchers, not cash, and is intended as a stop-gap measure — not a long-term welfare program. Portland has the largest program by far, doling out 40 percent of all statewide GA money. Funds are matched by the state at a 50/50 rate until the municipality reaches a certain threshold; after that, the state covers 90 percent (all administrative costs are paid for by the municipality). Last year, Portland granted $6.8 million to 4041 individuals or families. Of that, the state paid for $4.9 million. Most of the money (more than 80 percent) went toward rent and security deposits, or reimbursements to community shelters like the Oxford Street Shelter. The rest was spent on necessities such as heat, medical services and prescriptions, and electric service.
LePage's proposal would drop the 90-percent state reimbursement rate to 50 percent, which Brennan says would translate into an additional $2.25 million for Portland taxpayers to pick up. It would also limit housing assistance to 90 days per calendar year, which city officials say would adversely affect their ability to manage homeless shelters. The administration also put forth a proposal that would allow cities and towns to opt out of offering General Assistance altogether. Those that chose to continue issuing GA funds would get chunks of money from the state every year, to spend as they saw fit.
Brennan, who testified against the proposals in front of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs and Health and Human Services committees last Friday, claims the block-grant system would potentially "force people to come to Portland" — already an overburdened service center — from nearby municipalities that had opted out of the program. He also noted that it would eliminate any attempt to create uniformity for the program. Portland has developed several best practices, including improving verification of income and ensuring the applicants are hooked up with job-placement counselors, that it wants to share with other cities and towns.
The proposals represent a fundamental lack of understanding, Brennan suggests, of how the program works and why it is written into state law.
"The general assistance program has been the ultimate safety net," Brennan says. "When people don't have anywhere else to turn, they come to the general assistance program."
But, the mayor acknowledges that state finances are tight: "They also need to find between five and six million dollars to fund the program" through the next fiscal year. When he spoke to the governor in February about the budget deficit and MaineCare, Brennan suggested that the state make up funding gaps by increasing cigarette taxes and alcohol premium taxes, as well as forestalling some proposed tax cuts. On Monday, he said he believes the same solutions could apply with regard to General Assistance.
• Members of Portland's legislative delegation have other interests and priorities on top of the supplemental budget. We talked to state senator Justin Alfond, as well as state reps Denise Harlow and Ben Chipman, about their top concerns, which include raiding the Clean Elections fund, troubling tax cuts, cover-ups at the Department of Health and Human Services, and the mining bill currently before the Environment and Natural Resources Committee. Visit thephoenix.com/AboutTown for more specifics.