RENEE ORDWAY

While politicians argue, Maine’s welfare cheats will laugh all the way to the ATM

Posted Jan. 10, 2014, at 3:50 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 12, 2014, at 4:59 p.m.
Renee Ordway
Renee Ordway

I don’t really like to make predictions because I hate to be wrong unnecessarily.

I have teenagers. I’m wrong all of the time without ever saying a word. I rarely feel the need to throw myself under the bus without great cause.

After watching the recent furor over welfare fraud in Maine, however, I feel strangely compelled to do so, probably because it seems such an easy bet.

So here it is.

At the end of this legislative session?

My guess is welfare miscreants will be laughing all the way to the ATMs at their local strip clubs and hot-headed Maine politicians — Democrats and Republicans alike — will be off in their assigned corners pointing fingers.

Just a guess of course.

Who loses?

The taxpayers and those who desperately and legitimately could use a hand up via the system that is supposed to provide it.

There has been a lot of yelling, threatening and self-righteous remarks to the media about welfare fraud and reform of late since Gov. Paul LePage hired an out-of state consulting firm to investigate the state’s welfare system and the possibility of MaineCare expansion.

The first portion of that taxpayer-funded report was received on Dec. 16, but the governor refused to release it or its findings, prompting media outlets to file Freedom of Access requests.

Attorney General Janet Mills sent a letter to LePage demanding he release it, noting he would be violating state law by refusing to do so.

The governor’s response?

“Tell her to sue me.”

Clearly someone, somewhere in his office convinced him to comply and the report was released on Friday.

Also on the welfare front last week LePage released separate data compiled by the Department of Health and Human Services that showed that between Jan. 1, 2011 and Nov. 15, 2013, more than 3,000 transactions were made at more than 22 “smoke shops” in Maine, 650 at retail establishments that sell primarily alcohol, such as bars and sports pubs, and some at strip clubs.

Some Democrats were very, very busy reminding members of the media that those withdrawals represented only one-fifth of 1 percent of the state’s total EBT transactions in the same time period, suggesting the problem was minuscule — a drop in the bucket.

All this on the cusp of the opening of the latest legislative session.

Things are off to a great start.

That the reported instances of EBT cards being used illegally is minuscule in comparison to the number of total EBT transactions may be true, but Democrats would be wise to acknowledge the very real frustration and anger that taxpayers, i.e. voters, have when it comes to welfare abuse.

Most of us see it with our own eyes and it does nothing for their cause to try to tell us that it isn’t really much of a problem — especially those who work for a living.

Here’s how I see it.

EBT cards are cash. Like it or not.

There are nonsensical rules in place saying you can swipe your EBT cards at some places but not others — such as establishments that realize a majority of their profits from liquor sales — but there is nothing in place to prevent that, just unenforced laws saying it’s illegal.

You can swipe your EBT card at a bank ATM or ATMs in most any other location and what you do with the cash is your business.

It seems a bit silly to concentrate on the few lazy welfare cheats who don’t know enough to run through the bank ATM before they hit the strip club.

Some cheats are surely smarter than others, but really, what’s the difference?

EBT cards replaced welfare checks. Don’t forget that. Welfare checks were cashed and spent to the payee’s delight.

The true discussion of welfare reform needs to go way beyond the headlines LePage generated last week and its success will only occur with great thought, concession and commitment.

My prediction?

There is not one member of the administration or Legislature who has the ability to forge that path and like children of a bitter divorce, the welfare cheats will have their way.

You can reach Renee Ordway at reneeordway@gmail.com.

CORRECTION:

An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated that the EBT transaction data was part of the out-of-state consultant’s report on welfare. The EBT data was compiled by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

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