AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage's decision Thursday to allow state agencies to ask people about their immigration status likely will be the first step in his plan to overhaul Maine's welfare system.
A spokesman for LePage said the governor's executive order was meant to send a message that Maine would no longer be a "sanctuary state" for people seeking a driver's license or social services.
But advocate groups for low-income individuals expect the move is a precursor to Republican efforts to impose residency duration requirements on certain welfare programs, particularly General Assistance, which disburses vouchers to qualifying families for critical living expenses, such as utilities and food.
General Assistance recipients are already required to prove they're living in Maine. However, widespread concerns that needy people are coming to Maine to take advantage of its welfare programs have prompted Republican lawmakers to introduce legislation that would require people to live here for a determined period before receiving assistance.
Such efforts were defeated when Democrats controlled the Legislature, amid concerns about violating the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment, an argument that's been previously upheld in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Now, with LePage vowing to restructure the welfare system, a Republican majority in the State House and a Republican attorney general, duration residency requirements could be forthcoming.
The stage has already been set by LePage.
Dan Demeritt, LePage's communications director, indicated Thursday that Maine social service recipients should focus on "people who live here and are established here."
Demeritt acknowledged that programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Medicaid are mostly administered by the federal government and may not allow a residency requirement.
However, Republicans have traditionally focused on General Assistance, which is managed by the state.
Demeritt said LePage and other Republican lawmakers believe that Maine's "generous" welfare benefits made the state a magnet for needy people.
"We need to make sure we do everything we can at the state level to make sure we’re focusing on, and preventing to the extent that we can, people coming to Maine just because of its welfare programs," Demeritt said.
Ana Hicks, a senior policy adviser for Maine Equal Justice Partners, said LePage's decision was political, noting the vigorous cheers the governor received during his inauguration speech when he told supporters that public assistance had to go to Maine residents.
"It was very upsetting," she said. "This has been an issue we’ve been dealing with for years now, this myth that people are moving into Maine for generous benefits when we can show that that’s just not happening."
According to data from the state's Department of Health and Human Services, over five years, five times as many benefit recipients left Maine each month compared to the number of people who moved here and received assistance.
In 2006, DHHS reported that less than 1 percent of all recipients came from another state. And, about one-third were returning home, not migrating here.
The data also attempts to dispel other widely held beliefs. Despite perceptions that welfare recipients are discouraged from holding jobs because they run the risk of losing public assistance, DHHS said Maine has the most working welfare recipients of any state in New England.
And, in order to get temporary assistance, DHHS says all applicants must be residents or legal immigrants.
Hicks said that LePage's vow to make sure aid recipients are residents "pretty much happens right now."
But Republicans and LePage say the state has become a haven for individuals seeking richer benefits, and that the system is wrought with fraud.
Phil Nadeau, assistant city administrator of Lewiston, said it would be naive to believe that some people are not gaming the system. However, he said, "to say that people are coming here from out of state, and to say that there’s hard data on that, well, I just don’t think there is."
Carol Monterio, of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services office in Boston, said she was unaware of widespread fraud in the federal temporary assistance program.
"I personally haven't seen it or heard of it," she said.
However, a report by the conservative think tank Maine Heritage Policy Center recently stated that Maine is No. 1 in welfare dependency, claiming that one in three Mainers is on some form of public assistance.
The report was widely criticized by Democrats and Brenda Harvey, Gov. John Baldacci's DHHS commissioner, who called it misleading and politically motivated.
The policy center bills itself as a nonpartisan group. Its executive director, Tarren Bragdon, helped lead LePage's transition effort and Heritage Policy Center analyst Steven Bowen was recently named one of the governor's senior policy advisers, stirring Democratic claims that the group is a political organization cloaked as a research center.
LePage and Republican legislative candidates on the campaign trail frequently cited facts in the center's welfare study. That prompted claims from Democrats and left-leaning organizations like the Maine Center for Economic Policy that Bragdon's group was manipulating its research.
Bragdon previously countered that the center's welfare study began more than a year before the campaign season. He has repeatedly said the center does not endorse candidates or get involved in elections.
Christopher St. John, executive director of the Center for Economic Policy, said Thursday that the conservative group "deliberately misled" Mainers and lawmakers with its welfare dependency claim by lumping in Medicaid recipients with TANF and General Assistance, "totally different programs with different purposes."
St. John also noted that Maine has the lowest TANF benefits in New England.
He said, "Is it logical that people would flock from Massachusetts with higher welfare benefits to Maine with lower welfare benefits? No, that doesn’t make any sense."
Still, it's clear LePage and Republicans are preparing to unveil major welfare overhaul initiatives this legislative session.
LePage's inaugural speech set the tone. During his address, he told the story of resident Jennifer Cloukey, a single mother and welfare recipient who managed to earn a degree and is in the process of getting off the system.
LePage said he intended to make Cloukey's story more common.
"There are a lot of Jennifer Cloukeys in Maine," he said.
Said Demeritt, "That’s the goal we have to have for everybody who’s in the system. People who are permanently (in need), we obviously need to accommodate them. But we have to find new ways to get the others back to independent status."
St. John said he supported LePage's goal to guide aid recipients to self-sufficiency. He called Cloukey a "great story," and evidence that the state's assistance programs were working as they were designed to work.
"The current programs do a better job than the governor acknowledged," St. John said.