Democrats will consider EBT limits but oppose other welfare bills

Mark Eves
Robert F. Bukaty/AP file

Speaker of the House Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, swings the gavels during a session Thursday, June 13, 2013, at the State House in Augusta, Maine. Lawmakers are taking up a budget proposal that earned unanimous committee approval and a veto threat from Gov. Paul LePage. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

AUGUSTA — Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves said Wednesday that he’s open to a proposal by Republican Gov. Paul LePage to limit what products can be bought with cash welfare benefits, but said his party would fight two other welfare reform bills the governor will introduce in January.

“No one wants to see assistance for needy children used to purchase alcohol or cigarettes,” said the North Berwick lawmaker. “However, we are highly skeptical of the governor’s other measures. Struggling Maine families need a pathway out of poverty not a kick when they are down.”

However, Maine Equal Justice Partners — a leading state advocacy group for low-income Mainers — wrote off all three bills as political grandstanding by the governor.

The EBT bill aims to limit the use of cash benefits provided by the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program exclusively to essential goods. Currently, TANF money can be spent as cash or withdrawn from ATMs. LePage wants to prevent recipients from using taxpayer money on items such as cigarettes, beer and lottery tickets.

LePage announced Tuesday evening that he would introduce that bill and two others that were originally introduced by House Republican Leader Ken Fredette of Newport.

Fredette’s first bill would require able-bodied applicants to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to demonstrate they had applied for three jobs before receiving benefits. The second would eliminate caseworker discretion in deciding whether a TANF recipient had “good cause” to skip required job training.

Those two bills were twice rejected by the Democrat-controlled Legislative Council, which must approve all bill proposals before they can proceed to the truncated second session. The governor, however, can introduce bills without approval from the council.

LePage and Republican lawmakers have sought to make welfare reform a key issue in the 2014 legislative session and the ensuing election.

The governor has trumpeted his record on welfare reform, which included implementing a five-year limit on TANF benefits and creating a new fraud-reporting system, which recorded 1,569 reports from Jan. 1 through November, according to a Department of Health and Human Services spokesman. The number of fraud cases referred to the attorney general’s office has increased five-fold under LePage, from 10 in 2010 to 54 in 2013.

Democrats, however, say LePage’s reforms have made life harder for struggling Mainers. They cite a report by University of Maine sociologist Sandra Butler that said the five-year TANF limit had left many former recipients in economic peril. More than 1,500 families — including 2,700 children, according to the report — lost benefits. And not all of them went straight into the workforce.

“We want to make sure [welfare] dollars go to appropriate use,” Eves said, “but we’re quick to remind folks of the governor’s poor track record of what his so-called ‘welfare reforms’ have meant for the state, and that’s increased homelessness and poverty.”

TANF benefits, as well as food stamps and other welfare funding, are distributed to recipients on debit cards known as electronic benefit transfer, or EBT, cards. LePage and others have leaned on the appearance of EBT cards in drug-related searches to help make the case for tighter restrictions on TANF cash benefits.

Roy McKinney, director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Association, said there’s evidence that some cash benefits distributed on EBT cards are being used to buy drugs. So far this year, there have been 10 incidents of one or more EBT cards turning up in drug busts, including one incident in November when six EBT cards were found with a quarter-ounce of crack cocaine and thousands of dollars in cash, he said. There were only six such incidents in 2012.

Robyn Merrill, a senior policy analyst with Maine Equal Justice Partners, said anecdotes such as those often are trotted out by conservatives looking to score political points. After all, more than 7,700 Maine families receive TANF benefits, and thousands more receive food stamps, both of which use EBT cards.

She said it was important to remember that the vast majority of welfare recipients use the funds to help their families, including the more than 12,000 Maine children who receive TANF benefits.

“This issue has been promoted around the country by conservative interest groups and is used to sensationalize the extent of this problem,” she said. “They sensationalize and distort the extent of this problem, the press picks up on it. There will be one story of somebody misusing a benefit, that’s overblown, generalized and these anecdotes are used as rationale to cut assistance for everybody — the vast majority of people play by the rules and really need help.”

She also said that changing the regulatory infrastructure of EBT would cost the state a lot of money, and that lawmakers would be better off using limited money, time and political capital to address more pressing concerns facing Maine’s most needy — education and job training, for example.

Adrienne Bennett, spokeswoman for the governor, said LePage believes that a problem shouldn’t go unaddressed simply because it is small. In a weekly radio address, LePage said he believes his reforms simply will make public assistance more accountable.

“The reforms in these bills won’t harm those who are truly needy or who need a hand up during tough times,” he said. “If they really need assistance and agree to play by the rules, Mainers are more than happy to provide them with benefits.”

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 's picture

Welfare Reform

There isn't much that the State can do except investigate and prosecute cases of welfare fraud. The monies involved are federal funds administered by the State. The State has to follow federal guidelines. It is important to know that EBT is the card itself, think of it as a debit card. The funds loaded unto it come from various programs, SNAP which is the former Food Stamp program, TANF Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and ASPIRE which is a job loss retraining program. Both TANF and ASPIRE are cash benefit programs. The recipient cannot be told how to spend those funds. Someone who receives those benefits can buy alcohol or smoking products if they want. SNAP benefits can be used to purchase energy drinks, and various junk foods.
In Lewiston at least, and I know this for a fact from dealing with a bad tenant, people will trade their benefits to dealers for 50 cents on the dollar.
No one wants to see anyone go hungry, or without a home, but if I don't have the money to buy something I go without. No one has an inalienable right to an energy drink and a pack of cigarettes.

JERRY ARIPEZ's picture

LePage and the CON party shameful to say the least....

Four decades later, Reagan’s soliloquies on welfare fraud are often remembered as shameless demagoguery.

Many accounts report that Reagan coined the term “welfare queen,” and it was the Chicago Tribune, not the GOP politician, who dubbed Linda Taylor the “welfare queen.”

Reagan like other tbaggers/LePage use welfare reform to villainize the many for the few that do abuse the system and wants the smaller folk to sacrifice their lives and families for the bigger real crooks.

This is what they know and do to say they are fixing the problem....BS...Shameful is the Repub. tbaggers ways....It is what it is--- a smoke screen for votes....

LePage like the moron Con-artist Reagan who they, con's all alike, like to portray themselves to be using Ronnies only way to bring attention to himself during the election time as a tool. The only tool here is LePage....

LePage is playing Mainers and playing a dangerous game with peoples and families lives and he doesn't give a damn who he takes down in the meantime.

JERRY ARIPEZ's picture

Typical LePage folly and trait

It is and has been his nature to go after the weak, defenseless, vulnerable small people. The mothers and families that need to care and feed their children, provide a roof of some sort over their heads, to clothe them and get them off to school and try and fix their lives. LePages wants them back on the streets so he can degrade them even more.

Why would he change his ways of pushing around the smaller weaker folks. He did it as a teenager on the streets and schools of Lewiston.

LePage the bully, low life that came from the streets, only with the help of other families and the State Welfare system to give him the same chances. But nope, he just loves to put the knife into peoples backs and say he wants to do something to pursecute them to make himself look like he is doing something.

To pick on, bully, kick them when they are down, lay them off at Xmas, that is the LePage, and the tbaggers way of saying we care and want to do something to fix it.

Meanwhile they let tax evaders of the rich and the tax evaders of hack contractors and employers falsifying and misclassify workers as independents and not paying workmens compensation and taxes, stealing BILLIONS from the States revenues.

What is he doing about that? He is giving millions to people like Alexander for a piece of paper/report, an opinion assessment by a FRAUD that fits LePage's agenda and helps nobody but LePage and his cronyism administration.

Vote him out in 2014, do the right thing for the working class and those that need the peoples assistance to live.

FRANK EARLEY's picture

What exactly is his message???????

What is the message LePage is trying to give to the people? On the one hand, he talks about the Republicans putting all their energies into trimming fat, and fraud from the welfare rolls. Then he turns around and pretty much throws one million dollars out the window, for a pet project, which benefits no one but himself.
The Governor should lead by example, only now his new campaign slogan is shaping up to be, "do as I say, not as I do". He wants the residents of Maine to suffer the indignities of tighter welfare guidelines, while he is misdirecting federal funds meant solely for the needy to his own pet project.
Every time some politician starts pushing for welfare reform, we all take cover. What they consider reform is actually cracking down on the only people they can get their hands on. The ones who need the help the most. It never fails, as soon as they cry reform, it's the people applying for assistance who shoulder the brunt of the punishment for those who defraud the system, people who can't be identified. It's an idiotic system but it gives the impression of politicians actually doing something. That's all they want, it makes no difference if it accomplishes anything or not. I guess that is why it comes down to pushing two bills that have already been defeated. Government at it's best..................

CLAUDETTE THERRIAULT's picture

LePage said he believes his

LePage said he believes his reforms simply will make public assistance more accountable?????

Who is he to speak about accountability??

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