AUGUSTA, Maine — Potential fraud could be reduced if food stamp recipients were required to produce photo identification when using their electronic benefit transfer cards, according to a lawmaker who wants to see the state institute that requirement.
Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, has sponsored LD 1812, a resolve that would amend Department of Health and Human Services rules to allow food retailers to ask EBT users to show identification.
Many who testified Tuesday during a public hearing on the bill before the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee said the requirement would have unintended consequences and they feared that it might further demonize those receiving public assistance.
Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, said the bill is the latest “assault on the poor.”
Others, though, said the requirement is a small thing that could bring increased integrity to the system.
“These are taxpayer dollars. Asking them to verify who they are, is that too much to ask?” said Sen. Nichi Farnham, R-Bangor.
The bill has the support of DHHS and the governor’s office, but there is concern over the potential burden to retailers associated with the rule change.
A work session on LD 1812 has been set for next week. Harvell said his bill is still a work in progress and could be changed before it’s voted on.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, is funded almost entirely by the federal government, with states responsible only for the administrative costs associated with distributing the benefits.
The federal income eligibility for SNAP benefits is set at 130 percent of the poverty level, but states have flexibility to set rates as high as 200 percent. Maine’s eligibility threshold is 185 percent.
As of last September, nearly 250,000 Mainers received an average of $130 in food stamp benefits every month. In the last 12 years, the state’s participation rate has grown by about 150 percent, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Although food stamp fraud is rare in Maine, some high-profile cases — including instances where recipients have dumped bottled water in order to get cash back on the returns — have thrust the issue into the spotlight.
There has been a big push in Gov. Paul LePage administration and among Republican lawmakers to cut down on fraud in many forms, from welfare fraud to unemployment fraud to election fraud.
ID requirements have emerged as one way to address forms of fraud, but many object to the requirements.
The biggest argument is that poor people don’t always have ID. Also, asking for proof of identification draws attention to EBT users at grocery stores.
Representatives from the Maine Grocers Association, Maine Merchants Association, Maine Public Health Association, American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, and the Maine Women’s Lobby, among other groups, testified in opposition.
Alysia Melnick of the ACLU of Maine said the bill would do little to reduce what already is a very low rate of fraud in Maine but would violate privacy rights and stigmatize users.
Already, EBT cards have a personal identification number, which has decreased fraud considerably, according to Shelley Doak of the grocers association.
Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, also testified in opposition to the bill and said he felt it would affect a vulnerable subsection of the community: the disabled and the elderly, who often are forced to let others do their shopping.