AUGUSTA — In a series of party-line votes Thursday, the Maine House sent to the Senate a slate of bills aimed at reforming Maine’s welfare system, including how state-issued electronic benefit transfer cards could be used.

Four bills offered by Republican Gov. Paul LePage were either watered down into legislative resolves or defeated outright by majority Democrats.

One bill passed as a legislative resolve directs the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to use existing law and policy to go more vigorously after welfare cheats and EBT card misuse and abuse.

“The chief executive has the tools and resources to fight fraud, but he has not been doing the job,” said state Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, House chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee.

Among the bills offered by LePage and Republicans, one would have required welfare applicants to show they had applied for at least three jobs before seeking public benefits. Another would have cut off out-of-state use of EBT cards and another would have made illegal the use of cash from any EBT card to buy alcohol, tobacco or lottery tickets or to pay bail. The bills all were directed at safeguarding the use of state and federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families funds.

“The department does have some tools, but they don’t have one of the most important tools: They do not have the tool of prohibition,” state Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, said during one of several floor debates on the bills.

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“This is to benefit the families with children, needy families with children,” Sanderson said. “If there is anybody in this room who feels as though we should not prohibit money that is intended to be used for children to be used to purchase tobacco products, alcohol products, lottery tickets or a ticket out of jail, I don’t know who it is.”

Beyond arguing that state law already prohibited many of the things LePage wanted to crack down on, including using EBT money out of state for extended periods, Democrats said some of the provisions being proposed would likely be unconstitutional.

They did support an amendment from state Rep. Matt Peterson, D-Rumford, that would add smoke shops to the list of places, which currently includes bars, liquor stores and strip clubs, where it is illegal to spend TANF benefits.

Democrats also fought back against a recent campaign by Republicans and the administration that highlighted the many out-of-state places where EBT cash had been withdrawn or used to purchase goods over the past three years. Republicans have pointed to data that show the cards have been used in all 50 states, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

But when you look more closely at the data, state Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook said, including the data for 2013, it shows reforms put in place just last year were having an effect on limiting abuse. He said the alleged abuse DHHS and LePage were pointing to was only a tiny fraction of all transactions made on state-issued EBT cards.

“The vast majority of TANF transactions occurred in Maine, but of the small number that occurred out of state, the vast majority of those occurred in New Hampshire,” Gattine said. “The department may claim there are thousands of EBT card transactions in far-flung locations, but the vast majority of those transactions are for food assistance and not for TANF.”

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Gattine said the administration also knows that federal law prohibits cutting off the use of food stamp benefits that are loaded onto state EBT cards.  

While defeating some of LePage’s proposals, Democrats approved a bill, LD 1829, offered by Gattine that creates a new reporting system meant to track, deter and prevent both individual and health care provider fraud in DHHS programs, including TANF and MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid system.

Data provided to the Sun Journal by the Office of the Maine Attorney General show that over the past three years, Maine judges have ordered individuals who have defrauded benefit programs to repay $488,303. That’s an annual average of $162,767.

On the health care provider side, the state has seen restitution set at $18.7 million over the past four years, an annual average of $4.6 million.

Both Democrats and Republicans have said the state shouldn’t tolerate any fraud in its public welfare programs, but Democrats are quick to note the provider side figures are much more significant. 

“This bill would shine a light on fraud and increase integrity in the programs across the department,” Gattine said. “We are talking about valuable state resources. We must make sure that they, and the taxpayer dollars that support them, are used wisely.”

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Democrats hailed the bills that were approved as important steps to help curtail fraud and abuse in the system, but Republicans said the bills were little more than an effort “to save face in an election year.”

State Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, House minority leader, said Republican efforts were aimed at true reforms.

“It’s about fundamentally reforming our welfare system so that taxpayers are no longer taken advantage of and the truly needy gets the help they need,” Fredette said.  

Fredette offered an amendment to merge most of  LePage’s proposals, except the elimination of the Parents as Scholars program, into one bill, but lawmakers defeated the effort, voting 73-63 against it.

He noted that penalties in the Republican measures included cutting people off from TANF benefits after the third time they were caught misusing them. He said Democrats only suspended benefits for six months under their harshest penalty.

He and other Republicans have also tried to counter Democrats who have suggested conservatives are “waging a war on” or are trying to “demonize” welfare recipients as a way of distracting voters in an election year.

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State Rep. Alexander Willette, R-Mapleton, assistant minority leader in the House, told reporters Thursday that Republicans were looking for a way to break the “intergenerational cycle of welfare dependency.” 

But Democrats were quick to note in floor speeches and news releases that 92 percent of the 8,000 families in Maine enrolled in the TANF program are headed by women, many of whom are single mothers and/or victims of domestic violence. 

Among the bills Democrats defeated was one that would have eliminated Maine’s Parents as Scholars Program, which allows people seeking a two-year or four-year college degree to receive TANF benefits for up to two years.

Federal law allows up to one year of benefits, and Republicans argued that Maine faces up to $13 million in federal sanctions for not following the federal rules on that program.

But Democrats shot back, saying education was the key to moving Maine’s poor from welfare to work. 

“Welfare reform,” said state Rep. Joshua Plante, D-Berwick. “It’s interesting we call it reform when all we are doing is making it more difficult for those who already do not have enough on their plates.”

sthistle@sunjournal.com

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