Gov. Paul LePage is asking that a lawsuit filed by the Maine Municipal Association and the cities of Portland and Westbrook over general assistance payments to undocumented immigrants be moved from state to federal court. LePage says it’s against federal law and it must stop.
The MMA lawsuit was filed last month in Cumberland County Superior Court after the LePage administration announced it would begin withholding state funding to communities that provide emergency aid to undocumented immigrants, often those that are waiting on asylum applications or who have had their visas expired. Gov. LePage argues that he is simply seeking to follow federal law that says those who are in the country illegally can't receive local benefits. But Geoff Herman of the Maine Municipal Association says the basis of the lawsuit MMA has filed is that the state did not follow its own required procedures to change the general assistance program. He says that's why the case belongs in state court.
“The procedural issues of whether these new directives with regards to general assistance eligibility for certain people were rules, and if they were rules, were those rules properly developed and implemented," Herman says. "That is purely a state level issue.”
General assistance provides temporary, emergency aid administered by local cities and towns. It is mostly local funds with state reimbursement only after a trigger amount has been reached. Herman says the administration may be reacting to the ACLU of Maine’s petition to intervene in the case raising the question of the federal law’s applicability. Alison Beyea is the group’s executive director and she says the administration’s interpretation of the federal law is wrong.
“That is an improper reading of the federal statue," Beyea says. "The governor bypassed the democratic process. The cities and towns have a right to do this.”
Maine's attorney general has publicly distanced herself from the governor's position, even recusing herself from the administration's position. And Herman says because of the conflicting views of the law, municipalities are seeking clarity that a judge can provide.
“Our concern is delay, and that this takes this case into a level that we weren’t — a direction that we weren’t even going," Herman says. "We’re just focused on the Administrative Procedures Act, the rules and whether they were properly done.”
Attorney General Janet Mills declined to comment on LePage’s effort to move the case to federal court. But she said she had approved LePage hiring outside counsel because “the administration's actions that are the focus of the lawsuit were "taken without our legal counsel or contrary to the legal counsel of this office, which creates an obvious conflict."
It may be weeks, or months, before the federal court rules on the LePage motion, delaying movement in the state court proceedings.