AUGUSTA — A bill that limits city-run General Assistance welfare benefits to nine months for childless people who are capable of working cleared the Maine Senate on a bipartisan, 24-11 vote Thursday.

The bill, LD 1035, sponsored by state Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, also gained the backing of Lewiston city officials.

The measure allows a person to collect nine months of benefits from the program before becoming ineligible for five years.

During a speech on the Senate floor before the vote on the bill, Brakey said other welfare benefit programs in Maine, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, have work, education or volunteer service requirements for childless adults.

He quoted from testimony provided to the Legislature by Lewiston Director of Social Services Sue Charron. In her testimony, Charron said a number of individuals who had not complied with the new requirements for the SNAP benefits program were turning to the city for General Assistance.

“This is causing an increase in GA expenditures and these expenditures will only increase as more individuals lose their SNAP benefits,” Charron testified. “Implementing a time limit for able-bodied persons without dependents to receive GA holds the client accountable and adds accountability into the program.”

But Democrats opposing the move said it would devastate those who have nowhere else to turn in an emergency.

State Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, the Senate’s minority leader, said the program is meant for individuals who have fallen on hard times and if they used nine months of benefits and then experienced another crisis, they would have no option left.

Alfond said the program as it is designed was never limited to time but was based on need. He said Maine had a “proud tradition of being compassionate, caring and of looking out for one another.”

He said Brakey’s bill was contrary to that tradition. Also speaking against the bill was state Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston. Libby said the state has no way to track details of General Assistance benefits that are distributed to individuals. He asked how the new rules would be enforced fairly, or whether they would be left to the discretion of local municipal officials to determine who is “capable” of working.

But Assistant Republican Leader Andre Cushing said General Assistance should be a “lifeline, not a hammock.”

The legislative fiscal office said the number of people who currently receive benefits for more than nine months isn’t estimated to be a significant percentage of all recipients, a point Democrats also noted in their opposition.

State Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, said data from the city of Bangor show they provide General Assistance benefits to about 5,000 households each year and the average time 80 percent of those households receive benefits is three months or less.

“The majority of people do use General Assistance as it was intended,” Haskell said, “as a short-term bridge.”

Four Senate Democrats joined in support of Brakey’s bill, including John Patrick of Rumford, David Dutremble of Biddeford, Cathy Breen of Falmouth and Bill Diamond of Windham.

The bill will next move to the House of Representatives, which is controlled by Democrats.

Sun Journal State Politics Editor Scott Thistle contributed to this report.

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