Senator wants to put 6-month hold on welfare benefits for new Mainers despite legal concerns

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AUGUSTA, Maine — A Republican state senator is renewing an effort to require that Medicaid and welfare applicants live in Maine for at least six months before receiving benefits even though the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down similar restrictions in other states.

Sen. Eric Brakey, co-chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee, said he believes Maine's welfare programs are too generous and attract people who have used up their benefits in other states. He acknowledged that his proposal would likely face a court challenge if approved but said it's a fight that the state needs to have.

"I think this is a situation where the courts have it wrong and if it's something that has to be fought in court again, I think it's a fight worth having because our welfare system is out of control," Brakey, who's from Auburn, said Tuesday. He will present his bill to the committee Wednesday.

Under the measure, applicants in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, MaineCare, municipal General Assistance Program or food supplement program would have to prove they've been a legal Maine resident for at least 180 days. A similar bill was defeated when Republicans held both the House and Senate in 2011.

Less than 1 percent — or 93 out of about 14,000 people — on the TANF program have moved to Maine in the last six months, said David Sorensen, spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services. He said the department has no position on Brakey's proposal.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and Maine Equal Justice Partners — a group that advocates for and provides legal help to low-income families — say the Supreme Court has clearly shown that such a move is unconstitutional. Furthermore, advocates say, it's bad public policy.

"Does it make a lot of sense to say that people can't get help so that their situation deteriorates even more?" said Robyn Merrill, executive director of MEJP.

In a letter to former Department of Health and Human Services chief Brenda Harvey when lawmakers eyed a similar bill in 2010, Attorney General Janet Mills said it's "well settled law" that states can't "discriminate against recent arrivals" when it comes to providing basic necessities.

She pointed to a Supreme Court case in 1969 that struck down a one-year residency requirement in Connecticut, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia because it restricted the right to travel and discriminated against new residents. Another case 30 years later affirmed that decision, she said.

The Supreme Court also rejected arguments the states made for the need for the restriction, including that it would provide predictability to their budgets, saying there's "simply no basis for the claim that the one-year waiting requirement serves the purpose of making the welfare budget more predictable."

The committee will also examine several other bills Wednesday that would make changes to the General Assistance Program. Among them are measures to put a nine-month time limit on benefits and increase penalties for people who inappropriately attempt to obtain benefits.


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