PORTLAND, Maine — For the second time this week, Gov. Paul LePage suggested that Maine’s largest city might be illegally administering a welfare program that he is trying to eliminate — and added that an audit is the only way to know for sure.
Portland officials forcefully rejected the claim Tuesday after LePage said the city is “breaking the laws” in providing General Assistance benefits to certain immigrants. But after a conversation with Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling, LePage says the only way to find out is to audit the city’s program.
“[Strimling] said they weren’t currently doing it and I said that remains to be seen,” LePage told WGAN radio Thursday. “The only way we can tell that you’re not currently doing it is to have another audit.”
A 2015 Department of Health and Human Services audit cited Portland for “incorrectly submitting reimbursement requests for individuals who are not United States citizens or are otherwise ineligible for state and local public benefits.”
At the time of the audit, Portland was suing DHHS, saying the agency improperly changed a regulation to stop paying back the city for aid given to undocumented immigrants.
Strimling repeated Thursday that Portland abides by the law. He said that he “didn’t feel the need to respond” further to the governor’s comments.
At issue is Portland’s use of local funds to provide General Assistance benefits to people who arrived in the country legally and have pending asylum applications. This use of local dollars is allowed under state law, although LePage previously tried to end the practice by prohibiting the use of state General Assistance funds for this purpose.
The governor said Thursday that he trusts Strimling but also suggested that the city could illegally be using state funding to pay for benefits to asylum seekers. LePage did not cite any evidence to support his suspicion and his office has not responded to questions sent Tuesday.
The governor’s staff have affirmed that Portland is in compliance with the law, according to a Tuesday statement from Strimling.
In his latest budget, LePage proposed both changing the law to ban Portland from using local money to give benefits to asylum seekers, and repealing the General Assistance law entirely.
Repeal would eliminate the $12.1 million welfare program, which has been in place for decades, and another $2.3 million of staffing, administrative and other spending. These funds are used to reimburse cities for 70 percent of the General Assistance spending.
LePage also revived his claim that Portland is a sanctuary city Thursday, following President Donald Trump’s Wednesday executive order saying he would halt federal funding to municipalities that did not cooperate with federal immigration officials. It’s a charge the city has repeatedly denied.
There is no settled legal definition of a sanctuary city. Portland city code bars municipal employees — including police — from asking about people’s immigration status unless required by law, but the city also has a policy of cooperating with federal authorities, including immigration officers.
The Department of Homeland Security has not responded to questions about how it will define a sanctuary city in implementing the executive order.