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Welfare reform brings Maine closer to national mainstream

Posted Oct. 16, 2012, at 3:50 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 16, 2012, at 5:10 p.m.

Many people are struggling in this tough economy. Some of us work two jobs to make the same pay we used to with just one. Some of us have started side businesses or spend our nights going back to school. I speak with people every day who are in this situation, and they take it as a slap in the face that some people decide to sit at home and collect welfare.

There are many among us who need help to get by. Most of us agree that those who cannot provide for themselves because of age or disability should get the help they need. However, Maine’s abnormally high level of welfare participation is an indication that taxpayers are helping more than just the needy. Well-intentioned Democrats have, through decades of power in Augusta, grown Maine’s welfare system to an unsustainable level.

The folly of their policy is twofold. First, it creates a culture of dependency for many, whereby some people expect handouts from the rest of us and lose motivation to provide for themselves. Second, it cripples our state budgets, requiring ever-increasing taxes that drain resources from the private sector of our economy — the side of the economy that we should be helping, so those on welfare have opportunities for work. This is why welfare reform is one of the most important initiatives that the Republican-led Legislature has undertaken.

Mainers recognize the need for welfare reform, and it is shown in numerous polls to be one of our highest priorities. Republicans were trusted with this task because we understand the importance of making welfare a safety net of last resort, not a way of life. We went into the majority in the Legislature in 2010 tasked by voters with reforming our broken welfare system, and we followed through.

When Republicans were elected to majorities in the House and Senate in 2010, these were the problems we faced, according to the Maine Heritage Policy Center. Maine ranked:

• Third in the nation for the number of households on TANF cash welfare (4.9 percent).

• Second for the number of households receiving food stamps (13.8 percent).

• Second for food-stamp error rate (10.4 percent).

• Third for number of residents enrolled in Medicaid (27 percent).

• Second for welfare spending as a percentage of overall state spending (30.5 percent).

We undertook a series of reforms to bring Maine’s excessive welfare system under control. The Republican welfare reform:

• Capped TANF cash benefits at five years, which is the federal standard, ending unlimited lifetime benefits, except in cases of extreme hardship, such as old age or disability.

• Ended MaineCare (Medicaid), TANF and food stamp benefits for noncitizens.

• Required those convicted of drug felonies to be drug tested before receiving welfare.

• Capped methadone treatment at two years (previously unlimited) and reduced benefits from $70 to $60 per week.

• Required private insurance to be used before MaineCare when available;

• Reduced staffing and compensation and instituted reorganization in the Department of Health and Human Services.

• Substituted generic drugs for name brands.

We also enacted measures to ensure that taxpayers’ dollars are protected from welfare fraud and abuse, reflecting Republicans’ belief that those who misuse welfare must be held accountable both as a deterrent to such behavior and as a matter of principle. The reform:

• Authorized DHHS to recover improperly received general assistance and MaineCare benefits.

• Banned the use of Electronic Benefit Transfer cards at liquor stores, gambling facilities and adult entertainment businesses.

• Made the unauthorized transfer or possession of EBT cards a Class D crime.

• Imposed strict new sanctions for people who violate TANF rules;

• Made it easier to suspend payments to MaineCare providers accused of fraud.

• Added eight fraud investigator positions at DHHS.

• Requested the federal government allow Maine to require photo identification for EBT cards, as some EBT recipients have bartered their food stamp benefits to ineligible individuals in exchange for other items.

Republican legislators made incredible progress in reforming Maine’s welfare system. They were elected in part to fix the system, and they followed through with serious reforms. The work, however, is not done. There is still much that can be done to make Maine’s welfare system fairer, more efficient, less costly to taxpayers and less encouraging of dependency.

Rep. Ray Wallace, R-Dexter, serves on the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee.

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