PORTLAND, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage accused Maine’s largest cities of “breaking the laws” by giving certain poor immigrants General Assistance benefits and suggested that his budget proposal to eliminate the $12.1 million welfare program is political payback against Portland and other municipalities that have defied his repeated attempts to exclude such people.

“You follow the rules, there would have been no problems,” LePage said Tuesday on WVOM radio. “But if you try to not follow the rules and you use the money for illegal immigrants, then you get what you pay for.”

Portland officials denied the city has broken any laws, but LePage’s comments lend new insight into why he is looking to eliminate a decades-old welfare program that helps feed and house thousands of poor Mainers, after a year that saw the state run a nearly $93 million budget surplus. In addition to benefits funding, LePage’s proposal to cut General Assistance would eliminate $2.3 million of staffing, administrative and other spending.

The exchange is the latest salvo in a feud over General Assistance between the Republican governor, who has long aimed to cut public aid, and Portland’s liberal leaders, who have made welcoming and supporting immigrants a city priority.

For years, LePage has threatened to withhold General Assistance reimbursements to try to stop cities from providing those benefits to immigrants, who arrived in the country legally and have pending asylum applications. In his newest budget, the governor also appears to try to cut off Portland’s policy of using local funds to offer General Assistance to this group by making it illegal to offer them the aid.

Portland, Lewiston and Bangor — Maine’s largest cities and so-called service-center communities — paid out more than $10.3 million in General Assistance benefits last year. The state reimbursed 70 percent of that.

Bangor City Council Chairman Joe Baldacci gently dismissed LePage’s claim in a Facebook post that he said expressed his views on the subject.

“To be honest and to give him the benefit of the doubt I don’t think his comments were directed to Bangor. Bangor’s General Assistance program has been regularly audited by the state and has passed every audit by the state so it would be factually impossible that he could be referring to Bangor,” Baldacci said.

Separately, Portland budgeted about $250,000 of local tax money to provide benefits to an estimated 90 immigrants who don’t qualify for state reimbursement. This move is allowed by a state law enacted last year, over the governor’s objections, that grants General Assistance eligibility for anyone “who is lawfully present in the United States or who is pursuing a lawful process to apply for immigration relief” and capped benefits at two years. But the governor appears unwilling to accept this use of local money.

“My point is that we are in charge of state funding. We are in charge of doing what’s best for the society of the state of Maine, for 1.3 million people,” LePage said. “When they want to break the rules, then we gotta make adjustments.”

LePage also claimed that Portland took money away from its schools to pay for the program, without citing any evidence. A city spokeswoman said this is false and that the money was budgeted from the Portland’s general fund.

“Today, without a shred of evidence and contrary to what his staff has told the city, the governor accused Portland of violating state law,” Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling said in a statement. “I personally called him this afternoon to request any evidence to support his claim and/or for him to retract the statement.”

LePage said he doesn’t believe that any Maine city is properly implementing General Assistance.

Bangor, which would lose about $1.6 million in state funding if the program were eliminated, “has not had any illegal [undocumented] immigrants seeking General Assistance,” according to Rindy Fogler, the city’s community services manager.

And Lewiston only provides General Assistance to people for whom the city can submit for state reimbursement, said City Administrator Edward Barrett. That city provided benefits to 762 people in the last fiscal year and received more than $500,000 in state reimbursement.

A representative for LePage did not immediately respond to questions about which specific laws had been broken, by whom and how.

Officials in Bangor and Portland have argued that the governor’s proposal to eliminate General Assistance merely bumps the cost of helping Maine’s destitute down from the state to cities without doing anything to address the underlying issues. LePage rejected the idea that his proposal is a cost shift Tuesday, pointing to the fact that helping the poor historically was the responsibility of local government.

“If you want to have a General Assistance program, you fund it,” he said, addressing the leaders of Maine cities.

Maine towns and cities have been providing for the poor under a set of laws that date back to before independence from Massachusetts, according to a history of General Assistance compiled by the Maine Municipal Association, but in the 1970s, the state government took up a more active role after major legislative changes to the program. Today, officials in the service center communities argue they shoulder much of the statewide burden of poverty, because needy Mainers tend to come to the cities where there are more options for affordable housing, transportation and health care.

In his budget, the governor proposed amending the section of the law that enables asylum seekers to receive General Assistance and repealing the law entirely.

He denied that this legal oddity has anything to do with the heated budget negotiations that are likely to follow.

“I don’t throw bargaining chips in public,” he said.

BDN Writer Nick Sambides Jr. contributed to this report.