AUGUSTA — On mostly party-line votes, a package of bills offered by Republican Gov. Paul LePage meant to reel in misuse of electronic benefit cards was rejected Wednesday by a legislative committee.

The Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee watered down two of the proposals, changing them to legislative resolves directing the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to study and report back with additional information.

One of LePage’s proposals would require photos on EBT cards to help prevent misuse by people not authorized to use the cards. His administration has determined it doesn’t need a new law to make that change and is moving ahead with it.

Democrats on the committee said they opposed the proposed bills largely because parts were already being implemented. Other components were either in conflict with federal law or would be nearly unenforceable.

They said DHHS could do more to enforce existing laws and prosecute fraud when it’s discovered.

“I would be in favor of this committee sending a message to the department and the attorney general that we expect the rules as they currently exist to be followed and for these things to be investigated properly,” said Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook.

LePage and DHHS officials have pointed to electronic benefit transfer card data that show cash has been withdrawn from ATMs in questionable locations, including strip clubs, casinos, liquor stores and out of state.

LePage issued a sharp rebuke to Democrats on the committee.

“They prefer to automatically hand out welfare benefits to anyone who applies, instead of simply asking them to look for work first,” LePage said in a prepared statement. “This is outrageous. Mainers don’t mind providing a hand up, but they expect applicants to try to get a job before asking the taxpayers for welfare.”

One of the bills would have required those applying for benefits under the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program to show they had applied for at least three jobs. The other would have prohibited the use of TANF benefits outside the state of Maine. The third made illegal the use of cash benefits on the cards for the purchase of alcohol, tobacco, gambling or bail.

Republicans on the committee said the measures were aimed at protecting the state’s limited resources and ensuring that the truly needed received the help they deserved.

Republicans on the committee said the measures were ultimately aimed at protecting the state’s limited resources and ensuring that the truly needed recieved the help they deserved.

“Everybody on this committee, I’m sure, wants to make sure the resources that we have are really, really there to help the folks who legitimately need it,” Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea said. She said lawmakers regularly hear about people who needed help with food, heat or rent.

“If we don’t have the resources to go around to those individuals, what does it say when someone is taking a $1,000 withdrawal on the Las Vegas strip?” Sanderson asked. “Do they need that $1,000 or would that be better spent?”

Beth Ham, the director of DHHS’ Office of Family Independence, said the state’s welfare fraud and abuse investigative task force had begun to drill deeper into EBT card data in an attempt to root out misuse and abuse.

She said new analytical tools would allow better enforcement but, unlike some other states, Maine doesn’t limit EBT transactions out of state or at so-called point-of-sale terminals. She said the department had begun to restrict the ability of recipients to withdraw cash from ATM in prohibited locations such as liquor stores and strip clubs.

Democratic lawmakers on the committee pointed out that much of the EBT data the administration was highlighting came from transactions that occurred before a 2012 law change that aligned state law with federal law prohibiting the use of the cards at such locations.

Ham also said the department has taken steps to better educate card recipients about where they can use their benefits and what they can buy with them. This education includes a signed acknowledgement by recipients and a pamphlet mailed with EBT cards detailing what’s allowed.

Individuals caught misusing the cards could be sanctioned and removed from the state’s TANF program under the current rules.

Ham said the state was working with Xerox, the company that services Maine EBT cards, to block specific ATM machines based on terminal identification.

Lawmakers and DHHS officials said it is illegal to use TANF cash benefits to buy alcohol, tobacco and other prohibited products, but tracking how that cash is spent or whether a TANF recipient used that cash or cash obtained elsewhere would be difficult to determine.

Investigating and prosecuting abusers may cost more money than the state would recover.

Holly Lusk, the senior policy adviser on health care for LePage’s administration, told the committee that about 71 percent of the tips on welfare fraud came from the state’s welfare fraud hotline. She agreed that proving cash was TANF cash and was being misused would be difficult.

The committee also rejected a bill that would have eliminated the state’s Parents as Scholars Program, which allows some on TANF to receive benefits for up to two years while they are attending school full time in the pursuit of a two- or four-year college degree.

Also on a party-line vote, the committee approved a bill directing DHHS to annually report to the Legislature on its efforts to investigate and prosecute fraud, waste and abuse within the state’s welfare programs.

Republicans expressed disappointment that Democrats seemed unwilling to approve what they saw as “common-sense” restrictions on taxpayer-funded programs for the needy.

They noted that at least 19 other states, including Vermont and New York, have work-search requirements as part of their TANF programs.

“Everyone I speak with — Democrat, Republican, or Independent — thinks this bill is a great idea,” state House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport said. “It’s just the Democratic politicians who are out of touch and think that the welfare status quo is working out just fine. As someone who grew up in poverty, I can tell you that it’s not. We must act to ensure that our scarce resources are going to those who truly need them, and we must break the cycle of intergenerational dependency.”

Democrats said they weren’t turning a blind eye to fraud in the welfare system, but much of the controversy prompting the LePage bills was stirred by antecdotes, and not hard facts. They also said the state has laws and rules in place already that should be better enforced.

“If there is fraud, no matter how small, it should be investigated and prosecuted, not politicized,” said Rep. Dick Farnsworth of Portland, House chairman of the committee. “We are directing the governor to investigate that fraud and prosecute it, if it is real. He should stop using it to pull the rug out from struggling families, especially at a time when Maine has one of the worst job-growth records in the nation.”

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