AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage plans to revisit a familiar policy target as a new legislative session gets under way: the state’s welfare programs.
The LePage administration is proposing bills that would make drug felons ineligible for benefits through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, program and bar food stamp recipients from spending their benefits on soft drinks and certain snack foods. The proposals are coming even as Democrats who are less likely to be receptive to welfare reductions have retaken control of both chambers of the state Legislature.
The bills from the state Department of Health and Human Services are not yet available in written form, and not all of the details surrounding the proposals have been made public. Officials at DHHS wouldn’t comment on them directly, citing department policy not to discuss bills publicly until they’re printed.
The debate on the proposal to make convicted drug felons ineligible for TANF is likely to echo a debate among lawmakers in 2011 as a Republican-controlled House and Senate passed a two-year budget that allowed the state to cut off TANF benefits to drug felons convicted within the past 20 years who failed a series of drug tests. The budget provision allowed some of those felons to avoid losing benefits if they enrolled in substance abuse treatment programs.
The state hasn’t implemented that provision of the budget, said John Martins, a DHHS spokesman. “We saw some challenges with that, some fiscal costs associated with [it, and] some potential legal obstacles with it as well,” he said.
The state’s two-year budget also imposed a five-year lifetime limit for receiving TANF benefits. According to DHHS, the state was handling about 9,400 TANF cases covering about 15,700 children in November 2012. That was down from 13,500 cases and 23,900 children nine months earlier, in January 2012.
Drug testing for welfare recipients has been debated in a number of states in recent years, and Florida began to require drug tests for all people seeking welfare benefits in 2011. The state implemented the drug-testing requirement for four months before a federal judge issued an injunction 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.
The LePage administration’s proposal to make all drug felons ineligible for TANF benefits — which are geared to low-income families with children — sidesteps drug testing altogether.
If the proposal passes, Maine would join 12 states that bar all convicted drug felons from receiving TANF assistance. Federal welfare laws since 1996 have barred drug felons from receiving cash assistance through TANF — while continuing to be eligible for other benefits available through the program, such as child care and certain job opportunities — though states are allowed to opt out of that restriction.
According to a 2012 report from the Congressional Research Service, Maine is one of 13 states that opted out of barring drug felons from receiving welfare benefits while another 12 have kept the ban fully in place.
While it’s possible to cut off TANF benefits solely to the adults who are convicted drug felons and not their children, applying the ban to drug felons can hurt children, said Sara Gagne Holmes, executive director for Maine Equal Justice Partners, an advocacy group for low-income Maine residents.
“You eliminate the parents, the amount of assistance becomes even less,” Holmes said. “There’s study after study that indicates that a crucial time frame for a child’s development is between [ages] 0 and 5, and that’s the majority of families on TANF, very young families.”
Shenna Bellows, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said in an email that making drug felons ineligible for TANF assistance could be unconstitutional by punishing them twice for the same offense.
“A blanket ban also fails to distinguish between felony drug crimes and fails to consider the length of time that has passed since the conviction, thereby ignoring the possibility that an individual has been rehabilitated,” she wrote.
The LePage administration measure that would bar food stamp recipients from using benefits to purchase soft drinks and snack foods would require the state to request permission to do that by applying for a federal waiver.
But the state’s chances of securing that waiver aren’t particularly promising. While the move has been discussed in other states, only New York City has applied for such a waiver, according to the American Public Human Services Association, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture rejected the city’s request.
Maine’s proposed waiver, according to the bill request submitted by DHHS, would apply to soft drinks and snack foods that are subject to the state sales tax, such as candy bars, gummy bears and chewing gum.
Gagne Holmes said that’s the wrong approach to encouraging nutritious habits among low-income people.
“It stigmatizes low-income people. It treats them as less deserving than others by telling them what they can and can’t purchase food-wise,” she said. “If we’re concerned about nutrition and obesity, then why aren’t we incentivizing the purchasing of more nutritional foods and making access where you can buy fresh produce and more whole foods the focus?”