AUGUSTA — Ask Heidi Hart about a state program that helped lift her and her daughter out of poverty and Hart will tell you the Parents as Scholars Program was essential to changing her life and the lives of hundreds of other Maine families.

Hart, now a lawyer, urged lawmakers Tuesday to reject a proposal by Gov. Paul LePage and Republican lawmakers that would eliminate the program.

“From my earliest memories, poverty was a familiar state of affairs and I can still recall the shame that I felt as a child because of my family’s financial struggles,” Hart told the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. 

Hart, who became a teenage mother, said she figured out at an early age that education was the key to lifting herself from poverty. 

“Understanding the value of education and its relationship to financial security and success, I fervently hoped I could make it to college some day,” Hart said. “But a childhood spent in poverty can deter any hope of a better future. The need to escape from the daily misery can lead children to make risky choices that threaten their chances for success.”

She said the Parents as Scholars program allowed her to achieve her goal of earning an undergraduate degree from the University of Southern Maine. And while she is grateful for the support she received from the state-administered and federally funded Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, she will return far more than she received, Hart said.

“I started working full time just two days after my graduation and I left the welfare rolls for good. That was almost 13 years ago,” Hart said. “As a tax-paying citizen, my lifelong contribution to this state will far outweigh the short-term investment that was made in me through the (Parents as Scholars) program. The expected course of my daughter’s life was also dramatically changed because of the wise decision that Maine made back in 1996 to create this program and provide a lifeline to people like me.”

She said the program was supported at the federal level by former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican. “No matter which side of the political aisle you are on, support for this program is a no-brainer,” Hart said.

Elimination of the program is part of a slate of bills being offered by LePage and sponsored by Republican lawmakers aimed at reducing abuse and fraud of Maine’s welfare programs. 

Officials at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services say the program, which allows those accepted to collect benefits under TANF while going to school full time for up to two years, goes beyond the 12 months allowed under federal law, and continuation of the program could see the state face federal fines.

DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew said her agency and the Maine Department of Labor are working together to help TANF recipients find training and work within the 12 months allowed under federal law. She said working with the DOL, the Department of Education and local agencies, all TANF recipients in Maine now receive a vocational assessment to help match them with appropriate employment.

“When it comes to education, the federal government permits just one year of exemption from work participation over the course of a person’s lifetime,” Mayhew said. “I want to make it clear that we are committed to encouraging and supporting education and skills development of our TANF recipients.”

But Holly Lusk, the health care policy adviser for the LePage administration, acknowledged that the state had not yet been fined for not meeting the federal workforce participation rates for TANF recipients. Both Lusk and Mayhew said fines for the years 2007 through 2011 could cost Maine $13 million. Mayhew also said the state was not meeting federal rates for workforce participation for 2012 and 2013, which could mean more federal fines.

Among other reforms being proposed in the bills are new restrictions for electronic benefit transfer cards and requirements that those seeking federal TANF benefits apply for at least three jobs prior to being granted benefits under state law. The bills also restrict the use of TANF benefits loaded on to EBT cards to use within the state of Maine. They also require cash withdrawals to be spent on only the necessities and prohibit TANF cash from being spent on alcohol, gambling, strip clubs or bail.

The bills would better align the state with federal requirements, Mayhew said.

“Every dollar spent on alcohol, tobacco, lottery tickets or bail is a dollar taken away from a child in need,” Mayhew said. “Clearly limiting purchases to within Maine state lines will prevent abuse by people living out of state and ensure in-state residents are receiving benefits and tighten oversight of TANF cash assistance.”

The committee could vote on the legislation as early as Wednesday. It could also vote on a bill offered by Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, that requires the state to annually report the results of investigations and prosecutions that stem from both recipient- and provider-based fraud in the state’s welfare and Medicaid programs.

State Auditor Pola Buckley on Tuesday told the committee that if the reporting requirements were in place in recent years, the state could have identified and prevented the misspending of Medicaid and welfare benefits to the the tune of $100 million to $300 million.

Gattine’s measure requires an accounting of the costs of the investigation, along with a summary of the financial recoveries made after prosecution or settlement.

While Republicans recently focused their sights on abuse by those receiving welfare and health care benefits, Democrats say the “big fish” that are costing the state more in fraud and abuse are health care providers and pharmaceutical makers that mistakenly bill, overbill and mislabel prescription drugs paid for with public funds.

Overpayments to care providers are frequently recovered by the state, but, Gattine said Tuesday, giving the Legislature an annual update would allow lawmakers to take a “big-picture” approach in guiding welfare policy and spending.

Both Democrats and Republicans have said no level of fraud should be tolerated in the state’s public benefits programs.

During a news conference at the State House on Monday, LePage said welfare reform has been a top priority of his administration. He said he wanted the state to pursue fraud on all levels. 

“I do not like people defrauding a taxpayer, whether it is a consumer or a provider,” LePage said. “But I would be much harder on a provider than I would be a consumer — much, much harder.”

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