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Aid for asylum seekers approved by the Maine House, but future is uncertain

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AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine's Democratic-controlled House of Representatives on Monday approved a bill fiercely opposed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage that would allow the roughly 1,000 people seeking asylum in the state to continue receiving municipal welfare benefits.

But the measure doesn't appear to have enough support in the chamber to overturn an all-but-certain veto from LePage. The House's 81-63 vote falls 20 lawmakers shy of the two-thirds support the bill would need to survive a veto.

LePage sought to eliminate general assistance benefits for certain immigrants — including asylum seekers and people who are living in the U.S. illegally — and stopped reimbursing cities for the cost of providing aid to that group last year.

Portland and Westbrook then sued the state, but a superior court judge ruled this month that the administration could withhold reimbursements because the state doesn't have a law explicitly stating that these immigrants could receive aid.

The pending bill would rectify that, proponents say, while arguing that the benefits are crucial in helping asylum seekers a new life. Opponents, including many Republicans, say the state needs to meet the needs of its own citizens. They say it's inappropriate for the state to provide welfare benefits to non-citizens while people with developmental disabilities languish on waiting lists for services.

"You are making a choice today about who you are supporting: Maine people or other people who are coming afterward," said Republican Rep. Michael McClellan.

The House approved an amendment that would limit asylum seekers to only 24 months of benefits. The amendment was introduced by Republican Sen. Amy Volk and approved in the GOP-controlled Senate with a 29-5 vote last week. The measure will now return to the Senate for a final vote.

Democrats have accused Republicans of trying to pit Mainers against immigrants and say the state should be embracing new residents, especially those who are fleeing violence in their homelands.

Democratic Rep. Peter Stuckey criticized Republicans for presenting a "false choice."

"It's a thinly veiled excuse for not standing up to our responsibilities to treat others as human beings," Stuckey said.

The House also approved a measure introduced by Republican Sen. Roger Katz that would direct Maine's Department of Health and Human Services to request a waiver to prohibit food stamps from being used to buy certain products, like soda, chips and candy. A provision added by Democrats would also require the department to help organizations create initiatives to improve the diets of people in the food stamp program.


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