Lawmakers consider changes as the state’s General Assistance program shows strain

Maine lawmakers are eyeing several possible changes to the state’s General Assistance program as homelessness and a housing crunch have strained the program and its ability to serve families and individuals in need.

More than a dozen bills related to General Assistance have been proposed as the 131st Legislature gets underway, some targeting the state’s reimbursement rate and others focusing on eligibility checks and work requirements, although the final language for most has not yet been submitted.

“I think the fact there are several bills in reflects the fact people are very concerned about the future of General Assistance and recognize the fact it’s an important safety net issue across the state of Maine,” said Rep. Michael Brennan, a Portland Democrat who is proposing a bill to increase the state reimbursement.

General Assistance is a locally and state-funded program that helps people in need pay for basic necessities such as housing, food, fuel and medical supplies. Municipalities administer it, and the state reimburses 70% of their GA expenses.

The program has seen increased demand in the last few years, in large part due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, GA spending totaled $12.7 million, including state and local spending. By 2022, that number had jumped to $37 million, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, which said the increase is a reflection of temporary housing costs, primarily in hotels and largely driven by the city of Portland.

Portland is expecting those costs to decrease this year because the city is no longer placing people in hotels in other municipalities as it did during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the federal Emergency Rental Assistance program also helped offset costs during the pandemic, and the ERA program is drawing to a close while FEMA funds are only scheduled to run through mid-April.

Portland is still housing just over 950 people and is using the FEMA reimbursements that are expected to end in mid-April.

“People are struggling to meet the housing demands and then the other big issue that comes into play is that the federal rental assistance program, major portions of that were phased out at the end of December and into the beginning of this year,” Brennan said . “People who had been relying on that rental assistance are now having to turn to General Assistance.”

Other municipalities also have seen higher than normal General Assistance costs over the last year.

“It’s been a pretty big issue,” said Rep. Kristi Mathieson, a Democrat from Kittery who said the town’s GA budget went up “significantly because of so much need for rental assistance and housing stability.”

Mathieson wants to raise state reimbursements, too, as well as streamline rental rates, move from monthly to six-month or annual eligibility checks, and give municipalities more support from DHHS.

“I don’t know where it will go, but it’s a priority bill,” Mathieson said.

‘A SAFETY NET’

At the same time, some lawmakers are concerned about ensuring the program is being used by those who truly need it. Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, is proposing a bill that would create a nine-month limit for “able-bodied” adults without depends (there currently is no time limit), as well as another bill that would require those people to work, volunteer or do job training after three months on General Assistance.

Two other bills would establish new residency requirements. And another would require people to look at other options before receiving assistance.

“In a broad sense these bills are trying to preserve our limited resources for the most vulnerable and maintain a safety net that can catch people,” Brakey said. “But particularly when people are able-bodied and working age and capable of doing more for themselves, we want to make sure we’re building a safety net and not a hammock.”

Brennan, the Portland lawmaker, wants to increase the state’s reimbursement to 90% in communities that reach a set threshold of spending. He proposed a similar bill last year, but it was amended and rewritten to only include $10 million in one-time funding to offset GA costs in municipalities rather than the permanent increase in reimbursement rates.

The 90% reimbursement rate was in place before 2015, and Brennan said he wants to bring that back because service-center communities like Portland and Bangor have been hit hard by rising GA costs.

There are about half-a-dozen similar bills, including one by Sen. Marianne Moore, R-Calais, who serves as Senate Republican lead on the Health and Human Services Committee. They’ll be working through them all in the coming weeks, she said.

“We all know GA costs are up because of the pandemic and inflation and the cost of food and fuel and everything,” Moore said. “On the surface I think we’re supportive of (increasing reimbursements), but it’s one of those things that will end up in appropriations and we’ll say, ‘Do we want to spend money on GA or on something else?'”

SUPPLEMENTAL FUNDING

The Mills administration has proposed one-time funding for GA in the supplemental and biennial budgets while working on long-term policy changes, DHHS spokesperson Jackie Farwell said in an email.

Farwell said the supplemental budget includes $5 million to meet municipalities’ short-term requests, while the governor has proposed adding $7.5 million in fiscal year 2024 to cover state costs and another $3 million to cover the drop-off from pandemic-related support.

The biennial budget also proposes adding GA program staff at DHHS to standardize hotel reimbursements and better link families staying in those hotels with services to find them longer-term housing.

Portland City Councilor April Fournier, who serves on the council’s legislative and nominating committee, said in an email Monday that the committee has discussed a need to increase the state reimbursement to 90% or more. They also want to see more statewide coordination in resettling asylum seekers, she said.

“And of course what the whole state needs for all populations that would directly impact those utilizing GA is housing … truly affordable and sustainable housing,” Fournier said.


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