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Maine needs welfare reform, accountability

State Rep. Kenneth Fredette speaks against overriding Governor LePage's veto of LD1362, a tar sands study, at the State House in this July 2013 file photo.
State Rep. Kenneth Fredette speaks against overriding Governor LePage's veto of LD1362, a tar sands study, at the State House in this July 2013 file photo. Buy Photo
Posted Oct. 16, 2013, at 2:28 p.m.

Last week, I introduced a bill that would require able-bodied, job-ready applicants for cash welfare assistance to show that they’ve applied for at least three jobs before receiving benefits.

I have received positive feedback on the measure from many across the political spectrum. Talk show hosts from the left were receptive, and the Lewiston Sun Journal’s editorial board called the proposal a “reasonable” measure that Maine people want.

Nonetheless, Democrats in the state Legislature blasted me for “vilifying the poor” by proposing that maybe welfare applicants should look for a job before receiving benefits. My colleagues on the far left have said that this is “just another barrier” to access to taxpayer-funded welfare.

I’ve got to say, if asking able-bodied folks to apply for work before receiving welfare is considered a “barrier,” then we’ve gotten farther off track as a state than I thought.

This isn’t an unusual or unreasonable requirement. There are 19 other states doing it, from conservative South Carolina to liberal New Jersey.

I introduced another bill last week that was also instantly panned by Democratic lawmakers. It would eliminate a catch-all exception to participation in the ASPIRE work search program for welfare recipients. According to ASPIRE program managers, many people abuse the so-called “good cause” blanket exception, using it to come up with any excuse not to work with case workers to find job training or employment.

Other, more specific exceptions will remain, such as for those who must care for a sick loved one or a young child. The exception that allows nonparticipation due to inclement weather would be amended to clarify that “inclement weather” is whenever state offices are closed. This fixes another ambiguity in law cited by the Department of Health and Human Services as prone to abuse. Finally, the proposal tightens up some procedures surrounding the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families sanctions.

This bill received the same cold response from Democrats as the first.

The point of all this is not to “vilify” welfare recipients. I am no stranger to poverty, having grown up in a big family with a small income in Washington County. I know the difference between those who are using assistance programs in good faith and those who are choosing welfare over work.

The upfront work search requirement affects only those who are deemed “job-ready” by DHHS and eliminating catch-all exceptions to ASPIRE participation only affects those who are abusing the system.

It’s clear from all of this that liberals have a welfare problem. Democratic lawmakers in Augusta have rejected every welfare reform proposal to come before them this year. They even killed bills that would prevent welfare from being used to purchase junk food, alcohol and cigarettes.

This leaves many people thinking, “Is there any welfare reform measure that Democratic politicians will support?”

Over the past three decades, as Democrats enjoyed a near-uninterrupted monopoly over the Maine Legislature, they built up a loose welfare system that now ranks second in the nation for welfare spending per capita, according to the Maine Heritage Policy Center. Our food stamp error rate ranks second, and our work participation rate ranks 49th. Mainers see the excess every day and they want something to change.

When I speak to folks around town, many of them raise welfare overuse as a concern. They often start these conversations with, “I was at the grocery store checkout line and…” They don’t mind giving a helping hand to people who really need it, but they know welfare is easier to get in Maine, and they feel like they’re being taken advantage of. They work hard, and they pay a lot in taxes. They don’t like seeing their hard-earned money wasted.

Yet the hard left thinks that Maine’s welfare system is just fine. They’re happy with the status quo. I think they’re out of touch. They’re ignoring the abuse and dependency that most of us see every day because they still trust their partisan ideology over the evidence before them.

When Republicans held the majority in the state Legislature briefly in 2011-2012, we enacted many commonsense welfare reforms, capping TANF benefits, increasing penalties for fraud, requiring drug testing of convicted drug felons on welfare, and putting a residency requirement on benefits. But there’s still a long way to go.

The next time Republicans hold majorities in the state Legislature, you can be sure that welfare reform will be at the top of our agenda. That’s because hardworking Maine taxpayers shouldn’t see their charity taken for granted, and when it comes down to it, there’s no better economic stimulus than the life-changing effect of the dignity of a paycheck.

Rep. Ken Fredette of Newport is the Republican Leader in the Maine House of Representatives.

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