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For Immediate Release

Date: 03/01/11

Budget Proposes Changes to Welfare, MaineCare

By Rep. Meredith Strang Burgess

When Governor LePage unveiled his budget proposal last month, he set the tone for his administration in a single phrase. Addressing a joint session of the Legislature, he said the welfare changes in the package "send the message that work and independence are expected of everyone in Maine."

Obviously, not everyone can work and be independent, but his point was clear. Don't plan on making welfare a way of life.

This is a remarkable shift from the approach Maine has taken over the past couple of decades, when we became famous as one of the most generous welfare states in America. We've all heard the anecdotes about people moving here "from away" after exhausting welfare eligibility in their home states. Maine is renowned not only for offering virtually every welfare program, with all the bells and whistles, but also for liberally extending eligibility so folks could remain on the welfare rolls indefinitely.

Our Medicaid program, known as MaineCare - now with 300,000 enrollees - is so generous that taxpayers actually spend more than $6 million every year to give heroin addicts free rides to methadone clinics. Some actually take taxis and bill the fare to the taxpayers.

As House chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, I will be closely involved in the hearings and discussions about the changes to welfare and MaineCare in the governor's proposed two-year, $6.1 billion budget. Remember that it is still a proposal. All 16 legislative policy committees are working on their sections of the 600-page spending blueprint, and changes will occur. The final product, once passed and signed by the governor, will take effect on July 1.

With that background, let me outline a few of the proposed welfare changes.

Maine is one of several states that provide state-funded welfare benefits to non-citizens. The benefits include food supplements, Medicaid and cash payments under TANF - Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. In 1996, under President Clinton, the U.S. government prohibited any federal money for welfare benefits going to legal non-citizens during their first five years in our country. The feds wanted to ensure that people would not immigrate here and immediately obtain welfare. States that decided to keep paying those benefits had to do so with state money only. Maine was one of them.

The governor's budget eliminates coverage for legal non-citizens during their first five years, saving taxpayers $19.5 million over the biennium. There are various categories of legal non-citizens; the details will be clarified during budget negotiations.

Maine also is one of a few states that provide welfare benefits to convicted drug felons with no requirement for drug addiction treatment or regular drug testing. The federal government, as part of the 1996 welfare reform legislation, prohibited any federal money for benefits to convicted drug felons, but gave states the option to keep paying those benefits with funds from state taxpayers. Maine chose to keep paying.

The governor's budget would require convicted drug felons to have regular testing and addiction treatment if receiving TANF cash assistance or food supplements. The size of the population impacted by this change is unknown. But as the governor said in introducing his budget, "If we are serious about helping people move to independence and work, we must address the barriers caused by addiction. Otherwise, we are spinning our wheels and squandering state resources."

Maine, again, is one of just a handful of states that does not set a strict five-year time limit on TANF cash assistance. Without time limits, the governor said, many individuals lack the incentive to find more rewarding work and move their families to a better life.

The budget proposal requires a strict five-year (or 60 month) limit on benefits, and provides a six-month grace period for state residents who have already passed the five-year limit.

As to MaineCare, the governor would spend an additional $181 million over the biennium to pay for the huge number of people on the rolls and to fully fund in-patient and out-patient care. There are no rate reductions or service caps on any MaineCare services. However, the budget proposal does include incentives to reduce emergency room utilization. It also freezes the so-called "parent expansion" for people earning more than 133 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, which worked out in 2010 to a gross yearly income of $29,324 for a family of four.

These are just a few of the items in the budget. I'll be back in a future column to report on the action in the Health and Human Services Committee. Until then, you can contact me at ###

State Rep. Meredith Strang Burgess (R-Cumberland) is House chair of the Health and Human Services Committee. Her House district includes Cumberland, Chebeague Island, Long Island and part of North Yarmouth

Jay Finegan
Maine House Republicans
Tel: (207) 287-1445