- Associated Press - Monday, July 13, 2015

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - A Republican activist and three state lawmakers have launched an effort to block a contentious new law that would allow people who are seeking asylum in the state to receive municipal welfare benefits.

Stavros Mendros, a former state representative, filed an application Friday to begin the process for a people’s veto referendum in an attempt to overturn the law, which would ensure those immigrants qualify for general assistance benefits for up to two years.

The measure was vehemently opposed by Gov. Paul LePage, but is among roughly 70 measures that recently became law after the Republican missed the 10-day deadline to act on them.

LePage says he can still veto the bills because lawmakers adjourned last month, but Attorney General Janet Mills has rejected his argument. The governor plans to bring the issue to the Maine Supreme Court.

Mendros said Monday he believes LePage will be successful in his legal challenge but that it’s important to have a plan in place in case that doesn’t happen.

The group has until the law goes into effect to gather 61,000 signatures to get the measure on the ballot. They law will kick in 90 days after the last day of the legislative session, which is likely this Thursday.

If it’s successful, the measure will be placed on the November ballot and the law will be suspended until after the referendum, said Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap.

The question of whether Maine should provide welfare benefits to the roughly 1,000 people seeking asylum in the state has stirred an emotional debate that has deeply divided lawmakers and residents.

Republican Sen. Eric Brakey, who signed onto Mendros’ effort, said he believes it’s inappropriate to provide benefits to noncitizens when the state is struggling to fund its nursing homes and other services for residents. Voters were clear in November that they wanted welfare reform, he said.

“We are a small, rural state. We are not a very wealthy state … The problems with the situation of these noncitizens is really something that is the responsibility of the federal government,” he said.

Opponents of the effort to nix the law said that they have never seen the referendum process be used to target such a small group of vulnerable people, whose assistance will cost the state just more than $3 million a year.

“Denying this limited assistance to people who fled persecution and to survivors of violence, torture and rape is against all human rights standards,” Alain Nahimana, rights and racial justice organizer for the Maine People’s Alliance. “The campaign these Republican operatives are proposing could easily cost more than the assistance itself,” she said.


Follow Alanna Durkin at https://www.twitter.com/aedurkin

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