AUGUSTA, Maine — Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves said Wednesday that he’s open to a proposal by Republican Gov. Paul LePage to limit what products can be bought with cash welfare benefits, but said his party would fight two other welfare reform bills the governor will introduce in January.
“No one wants to see assistance for needy children used to purchase alcohol or cigarettes,” said the North Berwick lawmaker. “However, we are highly skeptical of the governor’s other measures. Struggling Maine families need a pathway out of poverty not a kick when they are down.”
However, Maine Equal Justice Partners — a leading state advocacy group for low-income Mainers — wrote off all three bills as political grandstanding by the governor.
The EBT bill aims to limit the use of cash benefits provided by the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program exclusively to essential goods. Currently, TANF money can be spent as cash or withdrawn from ATMs. LePage wants to prevent recipients from using taxpayer money on items such as cigarettes, beer and lottery tickets.
LePage announced Tuesday evening that he would introduce that bill and two others that were originally introduced by House Republican Leader Ken Fredette of Newport.
Fredette’s first bill would require able-bodied applicants to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to demonstrate they had applied for three jobs before receiving benefits. The second would eliminate caseworker discretion in deciding whether a TANF recipient had “good cause” to skip required job training.
Those two bills were twice rejected by the Democrat-controlled Legislative Council, which must approve all bill proposals before they can proceed to the truncated second session. The governor, however, can introduce bills without approval from the council.
LePage and Republican lawmakers have sought to make welfare reform a key issue in the 2014 legislative session and the ensuing election.
The governor has trumpeted his record on welfare reform, which included implementing a five-year limit on TANF benefits and creating a new fraud-reporting system, which recorded 1,569 reports from Jan. 1 through November, according to a Department of Health and Human Services spokesman. The number of fraud cases referred to the attorney general’s office has increased five-fold under LePage, from 10 in 2010 to 54 in 2013.
Democrats, however, say LePage’s reforms have made life harder for struggling Mainers. They cite a report by University of Maine sociologist Sandra Butler that said the five-year TANF limit had left many former recipients in economic peril. More than 1,500 families — including 2,700 children, according to the report — lost benefits. And not all of them went straight into the workforce.
“We want to make sure [welfare] dollars go to appropriate use,” Eves said, “but we’re quick to remind folks of the governor’s poor track record of what his so-called ‘welfare reforms’ have meant for the state, and that’s increased homelessness and poverty.”
TANF benefits, as well as food stamps and other welfare funding, are distributed to recipients on debit cards known as electronic benefit transfer, or EBT, cards. LePage and others have leaned on the appearance of EBT cards in drug-related searches to help make the case for tighter restrictions on TANF cash benefits.
Roy McKinney, director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Association, said there’s evidence that some cash benefits distributed on EBT cards are being used to buy drugs. So far this year, there have been 10 incidents of one or more EBT cards turning up in drug busts, including one incident in November when six EBT cards were found with a quarter-ounce of crack cocaine and thousands of dollars in cash, he said. There were only six such incidents in 2012.
Robyn Merrill, a senior policy analyst with Maine Equal Justice Partners, said anecdotes such as those often are trotted out by conservatives looking to score political points. After all, more than 7,700 Maine families receive TANF benefits, and thousands more receive food stamps, both of which use EBT cards.
She said it was important to remember that the vast majority of welfare recipients use the funds to help their families, including the more than 12,000 Maine children who receive TANF benefits.
“This issue has been promoted around the country by conservative interest groups and is used to sensationalize the extent of this problem,” she said. “They sensationalize and distort the extent of this problem, the press picks up on it. There will be one story of somebody misusing a benefit, that’s overblown, generalized and these anecdotes are used as rationale to cut assistance for everybody — the vast majority of people play by the rules and really need help.”
She also said that changing the regulatory infrastructure of EBT would cost the state a lot of money, and that lawmakers would be better off using limited money, time and political capital to address more pressing concerns facing Maine’s most needy — education and job training, for example.
Adrienne Bennett, spokeswoman for the governor, said LePage believes that a problem shouldn’t go unaddressed simply because it is small. In a weekly radio address, LePage said he believes his reforms simply will make public assistance more accountable.
“The reforms in these bills won’t harm those who are truly needy or who need a hand up during tough times,” he said. “If they really need assistance and agree to play by the rules, Mainers are more than happy to provide them with benefits.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.