AUGUSTA, Maine - A Superior Court justice has issued a divided opinion on a lawsuit pitting the state of Maine against local governments in a dispute over General Assistance benefits for non-U.S. citizens. But both sides are claiming victory.
Superior Court Justice Thomas Warren has ruled that the Department of Health and Human Services exceeded its legal authority in the way it stopped reimbursements to cities and towns for payments to non-citizens under the General Assistance program.
Cities and towns pay for most of the cost of the program until they reach a certain threshold, which triggers reimbursements from the state. The judge also ruled that local communities, which administer the program, can provide benefits to non-citizens, but the state does not have to reimburse them for those payments.
Geoff Herman of the Maine Municipal Association, a party to the lawsuit, says it's a win for local governments. "You have to go through rulemaking, State of Maine - you can’t hand down these edicts," Herman says. "You have to go through rulemaking; you can’t change the rules of the game without going through those processes."
Herman says that, In the future, all state agencies are on notice that they must follow the rule-making process with adequate time for public comment on any proposed rules. But DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew says the state was the clear winner in the dispute, as the judge found that it does not have to reimburse municipalities for payments to non-citizens.
"What the judge said was the state is right in denying reimbursement to municipalities who that are providing benefits to illegal aliens," Mayhew says. "That is the decision, and that reaffirms where Gov. LePage has been in insuring complying with the federal law."
That law was passed in 1996, and says that aliens that fall within certain specified categories are not eligible for state or local public benefits. Justice Warren has concluded that, while Congress adopted that statute, it allowed for states to provide benefits if they take action to specifically do so. Maine has not.
But he also noted that there is no mechanism provided in the 20-year-old law for its enforcement. Zach Heiden, legal Director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, which intervened in the case, says the judge was sharply critical of DHHS and its attempts to enforce the federal law.
"DHHS tried to require municipalities to engage in all sorts of complicated processes for determining people’s immigration status," Heiden says. "And the court here said DHHS lacked the authority to do that."
And Heiden says the judge was clear in ruling that DHHS cannot penalize municipalities if they decide to provide benefits on their own. And he says the court was clear in stating that Gov. Paul LePage has no authority to withhold payments to municipalities as a consequence for benefits they provide with local funds.
"The governor, at one point, said that cities and towns who didn’t follow these new eligibility rules would be denied all GA reimbursement, and the court dealt with that with the back of its hand."
But Commissioner Mayhew says the ruling means the state can redirect the millions of dollars it has reimbursed municipalities for payments to non-citizens to those Mainers most in need.
"It is a huge win for the taxpayers of Maine," she says. "And it’s a huge win for those in Maine who most need to depend on state government to receive critical services - our elderly and disabled."
The ruling leaves some municipalities with a real fiscal problem. Portland Mayor Michael Brennan says, while he is pleased overall with the court’s ruling, Portland faces a dilemma: Not only will the City Council have to decide how to pay for the more than $3 million in benefits that have been paid out with the expectation of being reimbursed, it must also decide whether to continue those benefits.
Brennan says some advocates have indicated that, if the city cuts off benefits, it could face a lawsuit.