Debit cards to be used for food stamps, other services.

AUGUSTA (AP) – Maine is joining the rest of the states that have gone plastic in issuing food stamp and welfare payments, state and federal officials said Thursday as they unveiled new “Pine Tree” debit cards that will soon be used statewide.

The new cards, which feature Maine scenes including a lake, mountain, lighthouse and Capitol on a blue-green background, replace checks currently issued in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and coupons issued for food stamps.

Besides reducing mailing costs, the new system will improve the state’s ability to monitor transactions. It also eliminates chances that benefit checks or stamps might get stolen or lost in the mail.

The new cards cut fraud because they are programmed to accept only items eligible under the food stamp law and reject items like alcoholic beverages and cigarettes, said U.S. Agriculture Undersecretary Eric Bost, who spoke at a news conference with Gov. John Baldacci and other officials.

Another benefit is that the new system helps to reduce the stigma of cashing TANF checks and paying for items with food stamps while other people are watching, officials said.

The federally funded food stamp program serves 110,000 low-income Mainers and TANF serves about 12,000 families in the state, the state Human Services Department said.

More then 1,500 food stores in Maine will honor Pine Tree cards.

Baldacci, a former congressman, noted that he served on the House Agriculture Committee when electronic benefit transfers were first being discussed. Congress has since given the states until October to set up electronic benefit transfer systems.

Baldacci said a pilot project started April 1 in York and Cumberland counties. The Pine Tree cards are to appear statewide by June.

Maine is among the last three states – along with Delaware and Iowa – to implement the debit card system, Bost said.

ACS of Washington, D.C., has a five-year, $9.5 million contract with Maine to design and implement the state’s electronic benefits transfer system. ACS has similar contracts in about a dozen other states.

AP-ES-04-17-03 1453EDT

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