Leaders from some of Maine’s largest cities appeared before lawmakers Friday to urge them to increase the reimbursement rate for General Assistance and have the state pick up more of the cost.

The program, which provides basic necessities like housing and food for those in need, has seen dramatic increases in demand because of the COVID-19 pandemic and a higher rate of homelessness. Lawmakers are looking at several proposals to improve the program and how it works, as state officials acknowledge that changes are needed.

Municipal leaders told the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Health and Human Services that they need more state help.

“Many municipalities are struggling to meet the needs of their residents due to a lack of resources, including but not limited to inadequate reimbursement rates from the state, as well as significant increases in demand for emergency shelter,” Portland Mayor Kate Snyder said.

Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, is sponsoring a bill to increase the reimbursement rate from 70% to 90% for municipalities who hit a certain threshold of spending on General Assistance – 0.008% of their property valuation. The bill also would create a working group to look at longer-term issues and would align housing assistance rates with federal Section 8 guidelines.

Brennan said his proposal mirrors a 90% reimbursement the state had in place before 2015, and he estimated about 10 to 15 communities – likely the state’s largest service centers such as Portland, Lewiston and Bangor – would qualify.


The bill, L.D. 1675, drew support from advocates who work with homeless people and others utilizing General Assistance, though municipal leaders mostly spoke in favor of another bill, L.D. 1664, from Sen. Marianne Moore, R-Washington, that would increase the reimbursement to 90% for all municipalities, not just those who hit a certain threshold of spending.

“As you are well aware, General Assistance provides a lifeline for many who find themselves in dire financial situations,” said Lewiston Mayor Carl Sheline, who testified in support of L.D. 1664 on behalf of the Maine Mayors’ Coalition, a group of mayors from the state’s 10 largest communities.

Sheline said increasing the reimbursement rate would alleviate pressure on municipal budgets, which many communities are in the process of finalizing with an eye toward keeping tax increases low. “L.D. 1664 would greatly help us, while also continuing to provide critical assistance to those who truly need it,” he said.

South Portland City Manager Scott Morelli and Snyder also testified in support of the bill. “The city offers our strong and unconditional support for this bill,” said Snyder, who added that Portland has seen a large increase in demand for General Assistance in the last few years and is currently assisting about 3,800 people.

Portland has spent about $26.5 million to date on General Assistance this fiscal year, and the interim city manager has proposed $22.6 million for the coming budget.

Maine Speaker of the House Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, a co-sponsor of the bill, said the need is not limited to Portland.


“The sharp increase in General Assistance costs is a symptom of other problems, including the lack of housing for so many Maine people,” Talbot Ross said. “While we are taking meaningful steps in the Legislature to address these issues, I think the financial consequences, as reflected in rising GA costs, underscores the urgency with which we must address this.”


Friday’s public hearing focused on a slate of bills related to General Assistance. Two other bills also would increase the reimbursement rate to 90% but require other changes from the Department of Health and Human Services.

General Assistance costs have jumped significantly in the last few years, from a total of $12.7 million statewide in 2019 to $37 million in 2022. Of that, the state paid $25.9 million.

The Department of Health and Human Services told the committee Friday that the GA program is important but unsustainable as it’s currently structured.

But the department also expressed concerns about some of the various bills, like proposed changes to eligibility rules that it said could be administratively burdensome. And it estimated that increasing the reimbursement rate would raise the state’s obligation by at least $12 million annually.


Last year’s state budget included an extra $10 million for municipalities to help with added GA costs. The governor included another $7.5 million in the proposed 2024-25 budget, plus $3 million to pay for programs that began in response to the COVID-19 public health emergency but are now ending.

The one-time proposals are strategic, DHHS said, because they give the state time to assess trends and develop long-term reforms.


The committee on Friday also looked at a slate of five bills from Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Androscoggin, who said they are aimed at ensuring limited resources are used for their intended purposes and there is accountability to minimize abuse of the program.

Two of his bills would establish new residency requirements for people to access General Assistance, and another bill, L.D. 182, would set a nine-month limit on General Assistance benefits for “able-bodied” adults without dependents.

“What I’m trying to ensure is we’re prioritizing benefits for residents who have paid into the system and fallen on hard times and need a helping hand and also that we’re not creating a poor incentive structure that is creating a potentially infinite burden on our GA programs,” Brakey said.


No one testified in support of those bills Friday, though three people testified against them.

Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, said the bills appear to be targeted at immigrants and newcomers to Maine, and they are misguided in trying to address problems that are the result of a flawed national immigration system.

“This is a national crisis and as leaders and lawmakers we should be creating laws that reflect the times we’re in,” Chitam said. “These laws don’t speak to the times we’re in. They’re very targeted to disadvantage a group that has not chosen to be in this situation and that even the state has not chosen to be in.”

The bills are expected to go to a work session before the committee, a date for which has not yet been set.

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