AUGUSTA — Earlier this week House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, asked members of his caucus if they had heard of abuses in the welfare system.
According to Nutting, lawmakers kept "bouncing up" to tell their stories. He said he'd received similar responses during constituent meetings.
The prevalence of anecdotes is one reason Nutting and members of his caucus are backing Gov. Paul LePage's proposed welfare-reform package. Another familiar narrative is accompanying the governor's plan to put a five-year hold on social-service benefits for legal immigrants.
The administration says the proposal would save $10 million a year. The proposal does not impact refugees or asylees, who receive some federal assistance.
Immigrant advocates say the savings would be short-lived because the need will shift elsewhere — municipal General Assistance programs, emergency rooms, shelters and food banks. The other problem, advocates say, is the political justification for the five-year wait, that Maine's rich benefits attract legal aliens and stress the system.
That argument was repeated by Nutting and Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, during a recent meeting with the Sun Journal editorial board. Nutting on Thursday described Maine as an "outlier" state because it offers benefits to legal immigrants immediately. Most other states, he said, conform with the federal standard, a law adopted in 1996.
The result, Nutting said, is that Maine is a "sponge" for legal immigrants. He said that means other social services, like heating oil assistance, can be underfunded. Additionally, Nutting said, there is no federal match for Maine's benefits for legal aliens.
"Do we want to continue to be an outlier that draws and attracts people?" he said. "We currently don’t have the funds to support Maine residents to the extent that we would like to."
But Robyn Merrill, with Maine Equal Justice Partners, said the argument relies too heavily on anecdotes.
"We haven’t seen the data to back it up," Merrill said. "In fact, we’ve seen data that counters it."
Merrill referred to studies published by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services that showed for every one person coming to the state to receive social services, two more leave.
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.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures and the National Immigration Law Center, Maine is one of 23 states that provide cash assistance to legal immigrants during the five-year waiting period for federal assistance in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
The state adopted its program more than a decade ago with broad bipartisan support.
Two other New England states, Vermont and Connecticut, have similar fill-in programs.
Neighboring New Hampshire and Massachusetts provide some support through General Assistance. If LePage's proposal goes through, Maine's immigrant safety net could take a similar shape.
The governor's budget includes a 15 percent reduction in the state's municipal reimbursement for General Assistance.
Maine's program has led many to claim that legal immigrants flock here to take advantage of state-funded coverage for pregnant women and immigrant children.
According to data compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Maine saw a 7 percent decrease in children of immigrants between 1990 and 2006. Nationally, the increase is 90 percent.
Despite fewer immigrant benefits, New Hampshire and Massachusetts saw increases over the same period of 56 and 52 percent, respectively.
Most of Maine's safety-net services for immigrants are for families with children.
Beth Stickney, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in Portland, said the data mirrors what she's seeing on the ground. Stickney said her clients come to Maine because a family member moved here, or because there's work at places like Barber Foods in Portland, Quality Egg in Turner or Smith's Farm in Aroostook County.
Stickney said the five-year wait for social services would hurt her clients when they most need help.
Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, the ranking Democrat on the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee, agreed.
"The time to help people is when they need it, not when they don’t need it," Craven said.
Stickney worried that immigrants would be forced to take second or third low-paying jobs. That could mean less time to learn English and a slow, if not stagnant, climb up the economic ladder.
Nutting said the Legislature didn't intend to cut people off. He was confident that the committees reviewing the governor's proposal would find a solution to protect immigrants currently receiving benefits.