LEWISTON — Mayor Robert Macdonald, who is seeking re-election to a third term, said he intends to submit a bill to the Legislature to require the creation of a website listing names of people on welfare, their addresses, length of time on welfare and types of benefits received.

All of that information is shielded from the public under current law, and Macdonald believes that should change so taxpayers know who is getting what.

In a regular column he writes for the Twin City Times, a free Lewiston-based weekly publication, Macdonald said he thinks the public has a right to know who is receiving welfare benefits and for how long.

He would still want to protect a person’s medical records, financial statements and other personal information from “busybodies who seek it out of curiosity.”

In his column titled “Enough is Enough,” Macdonald points out that “in Maine there is a website that lists the pension amounts received by everyone who is issued a monthly check by the state of Maine. No privacy here because this is being paid out by the state; accordingly, taxpayers have a right to know.”

Yet, he said, “other recipients of state revenues are shielded. Yes, I am referring to those known as welfare recipients.”

In the column, Macdonald blames “our liberal, progressive legislators and their social-service allies (who) have made them a victimized, protected class. It’s none of your business how much of your money they get and spend. Who are you to question it? Just shut up and pay!”

Macdonald, who has earned a reputation for fighting welfare fraud during his two terms in office, said “the days of being quiet are gone.”

He does not yet have a sponsor for the bill, but said, “We will be submitting a bill to the next legislative session asking that a website be created containing the names, addresses, length of time on assistance and the benefits being collected by every individual on the dole. After all, the public has a right to know how its money is being spent.”

In addition to the bill to make welfare benefits public records, Macdonald said he will ask lawmakers to submit House Resolve 368, “which will bring local General Assistance into compliance with federal laws that limit General Assistance to a 60-month total lifetime benefit.”

And, he said, he will also ask for another bill that would prohibit the state from paying benefits for any additional child born after a recipient has been accepted into General Assistance. The bill would be modeled after a law in effect in Massachusetts.

Massachusetts enacted a “family cap” that controls benefits for children born after a family first applies for welfare, denying cash and other benefits for the newborn.

Contacted by phone Thursday, Macdonald said he has given copies of the proposed legislation to Sens. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, and Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, and Libby is not supportive of at least one of them, Macdonald said.

Brakey, the Senate co-chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, which would have jurisdiction over the legislation, said he would sponsor the public records bill for Macdonald, if the mayor asked him to do so. Brakey, who is in his first term, sponsored a host of welfare-reform bills in the first half of the legislative session in 2015.

“I’m a strong supporter for welfare reform,” Brakey said. “But I’m also a big advocate for privacy rights, so I would really need to study this more before saying whether I would support this or not.”

Lawmakers have until Friday to submit proposed bill titles for the second half of the lawmaking session, which starts in January. All bill proposals, except those coming from the Governor’s Office, face their first hurdle before the Legislative Council, which decides the legislation to be considered in the second session.

But it appears Republican Gov. Paul LePage is not interested in pursuing Macdonald’s proposal through his office.

“There is no plan to submit this as a governor’s bill,” Peter Steele, LePage’s communications director, wrote in an email to the Sun Journal on Thursday.

Macdonald said his proposals are designed “basically to stop these people from coming here. We’re just getting overwhelmed here” from people who come to Maine from out of state.

“It’s just killing the city,” Macdonald said, referring to out-of-staters coming to Lewiston. “It’s like talking to the wall sometimes,” when explaining the burden of welfare costs.

“The biggest thing here is the albatross around our neck that is welfare. If we can just bring that under control we could probably start really going. Start really prospering and bring the tax rate down,” Macdonald said.

It’s not just the costs of welfare benefits, Macdonald said, but the costs of additional children in public schools, a lot of whom have special needs. “I’m not talking about refugees,” he said, but generational welfare recipients who move to Lewiston “to play the system.

“We have to do something about this. This just can’t go on,” he said.

Macdonald said he’s realistic about the chances of the public records bill ever passing. “I’m not sure that it would stand up. I’m not sure. But, we’re always talking about transparency and if we had a website like that, I think it would cut down a lot on welfare.”

He said the website wouldn’t be designed to embarrass anyone, because generational welfare recipients already “flaunt it in public,” but would be used by the public to know who is receiving benefits and then report abuses to public officials.

“We need welfare” for the people in need, Macdonald said. “But it should be a short-term thing.”

Generational welfare recipients are “just playing the system. They’re playing the system,” he said.

State Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, said he was discouraged by Macdonald’s lack of compassion and his lack of understanding as to how public benefits programs actually work in Maine.

Gattine noted that the vast number of those receiving welfare benefits are usually not on the programs for long periods of time. He also said the key targets for conservative welfare reforms — usually single adults with no children — are among those who spend the shortest period of time on welfare programs unless they are disabled or elderly.

In Maine today, Gattine said, only 6,000 families are receiving support from the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program. But it’s hard, he said, to counter conservative messaging around welfare reform because “people go cross-eyed when you start countering them with facts.”

Benefits programs for food and financial support account for about $100 million of the state’s total budget, Gattine said. That compares to $2.7 billion the state spends on medical programs for the poor.

“So in reality we should be spending 27 more times emotional energy on trying to reform those programs than on these others that literally amount to a rounding error in the state budget,” Gattine said.

Gattine, who is the House co-chairman of the legislative Health and Human Services Committee, said his primary concern with the proposal outlined in Macdonald’s column is it would be in conflict with both state and federal laws.

“There are specific provisions in federal law that would prohibit the posting of that information,” Gattine said. He said that while state lawmakers could change state law, there was little they could do to change federal law.

Gattine said he remains an advocate for rooting out fraud in the system, but said the only point of Macdonald’s proposal is to “shame and embarrass people when they need a little bit of help and a little bit of dignity.

“We want people to use these programs so they can stay in their homes, feed their kids and just keep their heads above water when they are going through a rough time,” Gattine said. “There are ways to make these programs more effective and more efficient, but shaming people who might need a little help to pay rent or buy groceries for their kids is exactly the wrong way to go about it.”

He said he also disagrees with Brakey’s willingness to sponsor legislation he may not agree with. “It’s not the approach I would take,” Gattine said, “and I hope people will see this for what it is.

“I just wish people would spend more time listening to the Pope today and his message that we are all in this together and not spend time listening to this divisive political commentary coming from the mayor of Lewiston,” Gattine said.


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