Lawmakers in Maine are eyeing several possible changes to the state’s general assistance program as homelessness and a housing crisis 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 under way, some targeting the state’s reimbursement rate and others focusing on eligibility checks and work requirements, though final language for most has yet to be submitted.
“I think the fact that there are multiple bills in it reflects the fact that people are very concerned about the future of General Assistance and recognize that it is an important safety net issue throughout the state of Maine,” said Rep. Michael Brennan, a Portland Democrat who is pushing a bill to increase the state refund.
General Assistance is a local and state-funded program that helps people in need pay for basic necessities such as housing, food, fuel and medical supplies. The municipalities administer it and the state reimburses 70% of their GA expenses.
The program has seen increased demand in the past few years, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, GA expenditures totaled $12.7 million, including state and local expenditures. By 2022, that number had risen 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 expects those costs to drop 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 winding down, while FEMA funding is only scheduled to run through mid-April .
Portland is still housing just over 950 people and using the FEMA reimbursements expected to end in mid-April.
“People are struggling to meet the housing requirements, and then the other big issue that comes into play is that the federal rental assistance program, large parts of it, was phased out at the end of December and into the beginning of this year,” said Brennan. “People who had been relying on that rental assistance now have to turn to General Assistance.”
Other municipalities have also experienced higher than usual expenses for general assistance during the last year.
“It’s been a pretty big problem,” said Rep. Kristi Mathieson, a Democrat from Kittery, who said the city’s GA budget increased “significantly because of so much need for rental assistance and housing stability.”
Mathieson also wants to raise state benefits as well as streamline rent prices, move from monthly to six-monthly 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 making sure the program is used by those who really need it. Late. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, is proposing a bill that would create a nine-month limit on “voluntary” adults without addiction (there is currently no time limit), as well as another bill that would require those people to work, volunteer or train job after three months on general assistance.
Two other bills would introduce new residency requirements. And another would require people to look at other options before receiving help.
“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 especially when people are able-bodied and of working age and able to do 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 state reimbursement to 90% in communities that reach a set spending threshold. He proposed a similar bill last year, but it was amended and rewritten to include only $10 million in one-time funding to offset GA costs in municipalities instead of the permanent increase in reimbursement rates.
The 90% reimbursement rate was in place before 2015, and Brennan said he wants to bring it 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 the Senate Republican leader on the Health and Human Services Committee. They will work through all of them in the coming weeks, she said.
“We all know GA costs are going up because of the pandemic and inflation and the cost of food and fuel and everything,” Moore said. “On the surface, I think we support (increasing reimbursements), but it’s one of those things that ends up in appropriations and we’ll say, ‘Do we want to spend money on GA or on something else?'”
The Mills administration has proposed one-time funding for GA in the supplemental and biennial budgets while they work on long-term policy changes, DHHS spokeswoman 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 pandemic-related dropouts support.
The two-year budget also proposes adding GA program staff at DHHS to standardize hotel reimbursements and better connect families staying in those hotels with services to find them longer-term housing.
Portland City Councilwoman 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 state reimbursement to 90% or more. They also want to see more statewide coordination in resettlement of asylum seekers, she said.
“And of course, what the entire state needs for all populations that will directly impact those who use GA is housing … truly affordable and sustainable housing,” Fournier said.