AUGUSTA — The Maine House on Monday turned back a pair of Republican-backed bills that sought to add new restrictions to the state’s primary welfare cash assistance program.
One bill, which was defeated in an 85-55 vote, would have barred some convicted of drug crimes from receiving benefits through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, program. The other would have prohibited TANF recipients from cashing in their benefits for alcohol and tobacco. It would also have required recipients retain their receipts to prove to state auditors that their purchases complied with state law.
The measure to bar drug offenders from receiving TANF, LD 1443, was among a set of welfare-related measures proposed earlier this year by Gov. Paul LePage. The bill would have denied assistance to anyone convicted of a drug crime after Aug. 22, 1996, punishable by a year or more in prison. The prohibition would have applied to both current and future TANF recipients.
Democratic opponents argued the restriction would be overly punitive and would ultimately harm the children of those denied assistance.
“Maine would be an outlier if we enact this,” said Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook. “Whenever we’re talking about TANF and limiting TANF, we need to keep focus on, this is a program designed to help families with children.”
A two-year-old Maine law allows the state to cut off TANF benefits to drug felons convicted within the past 20 years who fail a series of drug tests. The state Department of Health and Human Services, however, hasn’t implemented that law because of the potential expense and the possibility the law wouldn’t stand up in court.
The benefits ban for convicted drug offenders would repeal that drug testing law and sidestep the issue of drug testing altogether.
In 2011, Florida began to require drug tests for all people seeking welfare benefits. The state carried out the policy for four months before a federal judge issued an injunction order that put the law on hold. During the four months the law was in effect, Florida saved no money from the policy and saw little change in the number of applications for welfare benefits, according to data the state released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from civil liberties groups.
Dale Denno, director of the Maine DHHS’ Office of Family Independence, told lawmakers at a May public hearing that there’s no public support for providing financial assistance to those convicted of drug crimes.
“LD 1443 recognizes the commonly-held belief that public financial assistance should not be provided to individuals who have been convicted of serious drug crimes,” he told members of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.
A bill that would have barred TANF recipients from using their benefits to buy tobacco products and alcoholic beverages, LD 1030, was defeated in a 74-66 vote.
Democratic opponents said the legislation would have imposed a significant administrative burden on the state Department of Health and Human Services while Republican supporters described it as a common-sense measure.
“I don’t think it’s practical,” said Gattine, who serves on the Health and Human Services Committee. “I don’t think it’s going to result in significant savings. I just think our resources could be focused in much more productive areas.”
The bill would require more than $350,000 over the next two years to allow the Department of Health and Human Services to hire two auditors and an accounting associate to carry out audits of TANF recipients. The bill would allow the department to audit up to 1 percent of TANF recipients — looking at six months’ worth of receipts they would be required to keep on file — to determine whether they spent benefits on prohibited items.
Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, said it wasn't an unreasonable expectation that those receiving public assistance keep receipts to ensure public money was being spent on what it was meant for.
"We are a caring society," Harvell said. "And we ought to be . . . but it is not wrong to also ask those being aided to participate in this equation as well."
He said the government also requires people keep receipts when they want to apply for various tax exemptions and credits.
"We help those, but those receiving aid owe nothing in return and at some point it has to stop," Harvell said.
Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, said the state currently has no way to make sure TANF recipients are using their benefits appropriately.
“We want to make sure folks get help,” she said. “We want to make sure they have the services and support they need. We want to make sure it’s done appropriately.”
Both bills now go to the Senate for consideration.
Sun Journal State Politics Editor Scott Thistle contributed to this report.