AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage announced plans Tuesday to introduce three welfare reform bills for the next legislative session, which begins in January.
Among the proposed legislation will be two welfare reform bills sponsored by House Republican Leader Ken Fredette of Newport. Those bills were rejected by the Democrat-controlled Legislative Council, but will move toward consideration during the next legislative session after LePage announced Tuesday that he would submit them.
The governor also announced that he will introduce a third bill of his own design, which would put limits on where welfare recipients could spend cash benefits via electronic bank transfer, or EBT, cards. The aim of the governor’s bill is to limit purchases of items such as alcohol, cigarettes and lottery tickets.
EBT cards also have turned up in some in-state drug busts, leading LePage and others to believe the cards — which can contain dollars that can be spent as cash on any goods sold by retailers participating in the program — are being traded for drugs.
“The reforms in these bills won’t harm those who are truly needy or who need a hand up during tough times,” LePage said in his weekly radio address, where he announced his plan to sponsor the bills. “If they really need assistance and agree to play by the rules, Mainers are more than happy to provide them with benefits. But we can no longer tolerate an unchecked welfare system that has no accountability. Mainers demand accountability from their government, and that should apply to our welfare system too.”
LePage’s EBT bill also would limit the use of the cards to “certain geographic areas,” he said. That provision is a response to data that showed Maine EBT cards being used as far away as Florida or Nevada.
A spokeswoman for the governor said the exact terms are still being worked out, but that acceptable locations for EBT use would likely include not only Maine, but other states in the region.
One of Fredette’s bills would require job-ready Mainers seeking cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program to submit documentation proving they had already applied for at least three jobs before seeking cash assistance through the program.
This so-called “up-front” requirement is in place in 19 other states, ranging from conservative Georgia to liberal Vermont.
The second would eliminate discretion by DHHS caseworkers in deciding whether to penalize beneficiaries for failing to participate in an education, training and work program required for TANF recipients. That program is called ASPIRE, which stands for Additional Support for People in Retraining and Employment.
When Fredette i ntroduced the bills in early October, Democrats in the Legislature decried them as politically motivated attempts to vilify poor Maine families. The Legislative Council, made up of six Democratic legislative leaders and four Republican legislative leaders, twice rejected the bills for consideration during the second legislative session, voting along party lines.
The Legislative Council votes to determine which legislation submitted by lawmakers will be considered during the shorter second legislative session, when only proposals deemed to be of an emergency nature or carried over from the first session can be considered. However, a governor can submit proposed legislation at any time without required authorization from the Legislative Council. That is what’s happening with Fredette’s bills.
“I would like to thank Gov. LePage for ensuring that these welfare reforms will have a chance to receive public hearings and floor votes,” Fredette said in a Tuesday afternoon release. “These are common sense reforms of the kind that Maine people are crying out for.”
LePage also made a thinly veiled reference to Democrats on the Legislative Council and others who opposed Fredette’s welfare reform bills when they were first proposed.
“Progressives and liberals think the status quo in our welfare system is just fine. They refuse to support any reforms, but Mainers know they’re out of touch,” he said. “Mainers know the system is broken.”
Welfare reform has been an issue of emphasis for Republicans heading into the 2014 gubernatorial and legislative elections. The second session of the Democrat-controlled 126th Legislature begins Jan. 8.
BDN Southern Maine Editor Robert Long contributed to this report.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.