LEWISTON — Gov. Paul LePage said Tuesday that statistics compiled by a state agency showed thousands of electronic benefits transactions occurred at Maine businesses, demonstrating the abuse of cards used to derive state welfare benefits, including nearly 400 at several Twin Cities' establishments.
But when the Sun Journal quizzed business managers and owners at local businesses cited in LePage's news release, they all denied accepting the cards at their registers. They all said they have had ATM machines on the premises of their businesses at some point.
In his written statement, LePage's office says the numbers show “thousands of transactions involving the misuse of taxpayer-funded welfare benefits on EBT cards issued in Maine.”
Among the businesses listed in a spreadsheet compiled by the Department of Health and Human Services and highlighted by the governor's office are 93 transactions at Roopers stores in Auburn and Lewiston that sell retail discount beverages, pizza and sandwiches, as well as cold foods and household goods.
According to the list, 298 transactions involving EBT cards were conducted at two Discount Smoke Shop locations in Lewiston. One transaction took place at Gritty McDuff's restaurant and bar in Auburn where EBT cards are not accepted at the register and an ATM machine was removed last year.
In his written statement, LePage centers his criticism on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or TANF benefits, where recipients can withdraw cash from ATM machines using their EBT cards.
“This is a difficult issue to address when you have an EBT card that is supposed to be used for a specific use and you can get a cash benefit off of it and use it in any way,” said Adrienne Bennett, LePage's press secretary.
She said a debate is needed to sort through the issue. The governor will be introducing a bill that addresses the possible abuses that remain, she said.
The federal government prohibits use of the cards in certain locations, and DHHS introduced legislation aimed at mirroring federal law. Now, under state and federal law, welfare recipients are barred from using EBT cards for transactions at a retail store where at least half of the gross sales come from the sale of liquor, gambling facilities and strip clubs.
The law doesn't specify whether the use of ATM machines at such businesses are prohibited. And the law is silent on smoke shops that sell primarily tobacco products.
The law puts the onus on the welfare benefits recipient, not on the business owner.
“There are some loopholes still,” Bennett said. “How do we fix those loopholes?”
Steve Roop, who owns four retail stores in Lewiston and Auburn, said the governor's news release is misleading, suggesting his stores accept the cards when they don't. He has no control over how customers use the ATM machines in his stores.
Roop said he has the machines in his stores in hopes of avoiding “astronomical” processing fees incurred by retail stores that accept credit and debit cards.
He said he doesn't doubt fraud occurs in the EBT system. He said he believes only grocery stores should be accepting EBT cards at their registers.