Panel busy with welfare, smoking bills

Posted March 31, 2009, at 8:59 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Public testimony on bills aimed at reforming Maine’s welfare system, placing further restrictions on public smoking, and prohibiting the purchase of soda and snack foods with food stamps kept the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee busy Tuesday afternoon.

Two Republican-sponsored bills seek to restrict Maine’s public assistance programs, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and General Assistance.

LD 254, sponsored by Rep. Richard Cebra, R-Naples, proposes a five-point reform of welfare programs. It would require a 90-day residency in Maine for general assistance, provide a new-hire tax credit for employers who hire welfare recipients, increase the required hours of participation in Maine’s welfare-to-work program, adjust benefits to reflect earned income and impose a lifetime cap of 60 months on TANF benefits.

LD 321, sponsored by Rep. Gary Knight, R-Livermore Falls, included only the 90-day residency requirement for general assistance.

The two measures elicited supportive testimony from 18 individuals. Gordon Davis of Bridgton said he has witnessed “flagrant and widespread waste, fraud and abuse” within the welfare system. “Too many people choose to make welfare their jobs,” he said.

A number of people said Maine’s “liberal” welfare system attracts out-of-staters looking to live off public dollars, including an increasing number of foreign immigrants whose presence is “squeezing out” native Mainers from getting benefits.

“Are the Guantanamo Bay detainees next?” asked Roxanna Haggerman, also of Bridgton.

Speaking in defense of existing welfare regulations, Barbara VanBurgel of the state’s Office of Integrated Access and Support said the impact of the proposed changes would be “broad and profoundly negative to Maine’s most vulnerable citizens.” In addition, she said imposing a residency requirement for General Assistance, the first-line indigent fund administered by municipalities, would likely be unconstitutional, and a five-year lifetime cap on TANF benefits would “punish those who are disabled or living in situations beyond their control.”

Laura Harper of the Maine Women’s Lobby said it is “a myth in Maine that people come to take advantage of our welfare benefits.” Many of those receiving benefits are single mothers who have left abusive relationships and rely on assistance to keep their families housed, fed and together, she said.

Freshman Rep. Joan Cohen, D-Portland, introduced her proposal to banish smokers from outdoor bars and dining areas. “Most people don’t smoke, and don’t enjoy being around people who do smoke,” she said. A Portland City ordinance already prohibits smoking at outdoor eating and drinking spots, she noted.

The measure drew support from the Department of Health and Human Services, the Maine chapter of the American Lung Association, the Maine Public Health Association and the Maine Medical Association. Only consumer Eric McVeigh of Hampden spoke in opposition.

“The rights of smokers are being chipped away,” he said.

The last two bills of the afternoon aimed at disallowing the purchases of soda and snack foods with the federal food stamps program, recently renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

The bill sponsored by Rep. Bruce Bickford, R-Auburn, would prohibit SNAP funds from being used to buy foods that are subject to the state sales tax. That includes candy, soda and most prepared foods. Another bill sponsored by Rep. Peggy Pendleton, D-Scarborough, would eliminate soda from the SNAP shopping cart. Both measures would require DHHS to apply for a federal waiver allowing the state to impose restrictions beyond those established at the federal level.

Speaking in strong support of Pendleton’s bill, pediatric dentist and children’s public health advocate Jonathan Shenkin said there is no question that soda consumption contributes significantly to dental disease, diabetes and obesity in all age groups. Shenkin cited a recent national study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showing that food stamp participants of all ages get more of their sugar intake from sodas than do nonparticipants.

SNAP, Shenkin argued, should follow the example of other federal nutrition efforts, such as the school lunch program and the Women, Infants and Children program, and insist that taxpayer dollars be spent on healthful foods. A ban on non-nutritive sugar-sweetened soda would be a clear-cut step in the right direction, he said.

But others objected to the food stamp bills on the grounds that they would discriminate against the low-income individuals and families who use the program.

Christine Hastedt of the Maine Equal Justice Partners advocacy group said the goal of promoting healthier diets in all Mainers is worthy, but that singling out food stamp recipients would promote stigma and drive people away from the program at a time when many families are struggling to get by.

A more effective approach, she said, would be a broad-based educational campaign about the importance of choosing healthy foods along with eliminating the availability of sodas and other soft drinks in public places such as the State House complex.

Lobbyist Newell Augur, representing the Maine Beverage Association, cautioned committee members against “knee-jerk reactions that single out a single product or group of people.”

VanBurgel said it is unlikely the federal government would grant a state waiver in the SNAP program, referencing a rejected application from the state of Minnesota last year.

The committee will hold a workshop on the bills on Thursday, April 2.

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