AUGUSTA (AP) — Gov. Paul LePage’s administration said Monday that it will begin putting photos on welfare benefit cards throughout Maine, but federal officials are again urging the state to wait to ensure that it is complying with laws and regulations.

Maine has been issuing the new electronic benefit transfer cards in Bangor since April, and Department of Health and Human Services said it will start handing them out to recipients statewide starting Tuesday to “strengthen the integrity” of its welfare programs.

But in a letter Monday to DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it is “strongly urging” the state to hold off on the expansion of the cards.

Kurt Messner, acting northeast regional administrator for the Food Nutrition Service, said it has not received responses from the DHHS to a variety of questions and concerns regarding the plan. He warned that Maine is at risk of losing federal funding if it violates any laws or regulations in the program.

The Republican governor’s administration contends that having photos on the cards will help prosecute those who illegally sell the cards for drugs or cash. The new cards also state that misusing them is a crime.

“The card now makes it crystal clear that using EBT inappropriately is a crime, which makes it easier to prosecute those who take advantage of the system,” LePage said in a statement.


About 2,200 people have received the new cards in the Bangor area so far, the DHHS said. There are about 223,000 active EBT cards in the state.

Starting Tuesday, recipients can get their photos taken at their local DHHS offices and the cards will be mailed to them. They can use their old card until their new one has been activated, the department said.

The DHHS has estimated that it will cost $165,922 initially to issue the new cards and $4,154 annually in the future.

Advocates for the poor have said that photos will be ineffective and put up barriers for some to access their benefits.

The Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association said there will be no difference in how businesses handle the cards.

Executive Director Shelley Doak said she has advised businesses to adhere to their agreement with the USDA, which says they can’t treat welfare recipients any differently than any other customer.


“We always maintain that a customer is a customer is a customer,” she said.

Federal officials had asked Maine to delay the pilot project, but state officials moved forward anyway and said the opposition defied “common-sense logic.”

Mayhew said Monday that the experience in Bangor has better prepared the DHHS for statewide implementation. The department did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Monday regarding the letter from the federal government.

In a June 10 letter to the state, the USDA listed a number of questions and concerns regarding the plan.

Among them, it said that the notice the DHHS sent to businesses does not sufficiently inform them that they cannot ask to compare EBT cardholders to their photos unless they do that for people using regular debit and credit cards.

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