Future looks bleak for last of LePage’s welfare reform proposals

Posted April 08, 2014, at 9:16 p.m.
House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, gestures Tuesday evening during a debate in the House of Representatives regarding a bill that would prohibit the use of cash welfare benefits for tobacco, alcohol and other vice purchases. Fredette was urging his colleagues to reject the bill, as amended by the State Senate Monday, because the penalties in the bill were not strong enough, according to Republicans who have called the bill, &quota toothless tiger."
Scott Thistle | Sun Journal
House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, gestures Tuesday evening during a debate in the House of Representatives regarding a bill that would prohibit the use of cash welfare benefits for tobacco, alcohol and other vice purchases. Fredette was urging his colleagues to reject the bill, as amended by the State Senate Monday, because the penalties in the bill were not strong enough, according to Republicans who have called the bill, "a toothless tiger."

AUGUSTA, Maine — House Democrats on Tuesday evening condemned the last of Gov. Paul LePage’s welfare reform efforts to an uncertain future in the Senate.

The House voted 72-70 to insist the Senate accept a weaker version of a bill originally proposed by the governor that has been through the legislative wringer in recent weeks.

LD 1822 was proposed by the governor as an effort to ban the use of cash welfare benefits to pay for tobacco, alcohol, lottery, gambling or bail.

Sixty-nine Democrats were joined by three unenrolled representatives in pushing the bill into near-certain stalemate. Thirteen Democrats joined 56 Republicans and one unenrolled lawmaker in opposing the measure.

Of LePage’s four welfare reform proposals, it was the most likely to gain bipartisan support. Members of both parties agreed that taxpayer money should not be spent on vice by welfare recipients.

But heated disagreements about how harsh penalties should be — plus the lingering question about how to enforce such a prohibition — left the Legislature deciding between several versions of the bill, none of which were popular enough to gain majority support in both chambers.

The version supported by the House removes the prohibitions on the prohibited five and instead bans the use of EBT cards — which are loaded with various kinds of public assistance money — at smoke shops. It also directs the Department of Health and Human Services to study the use of EBT cards on the prohibited five.

On Monday, the Senate supported its own version of the bill, which included LePage’s provisions, but with a different set of penalties for those who would flout the bill, starting with a written warning, followed by a three-month benefit freeze for second offenses and six-month freezes for all subsequent offenses.

Republicans in both chambers have balked at both proposals, saying the House version of the bill is little more than a feel-good study for Democrats desperate to look tough on welfare and blasting the Senate bill’s penalty scheme, which they say is not strong enough to deter abuse.

If the two chambers cannot come to an agreement on which version of the bill to pass — a fate that seems certain in the wake of the House’s insistence Tuesday — the bill will die. The Senate will take what is likely to be the final vote sometime this week.

Republicans were left crying foul after Tuesday’s floor debate as they watched Democrats reject their attempt to put forward a last-minute surprise amendment to the Senate’s version of the bill. The proposal by Rep. Sharri MacDonald, R-Old Orchard Beach, would have increased the penalties.

The move likely would have brought more House Republicans on board but was unlikely to win over many Democrats in the House who have opposed a prohibition they describe as unenforceable.

Still, Republicans fumed that they were not given a chance to make their case and accused Democrats of thwarting an attempt at compromise.

Democrats said the amendment was a publicity stunt and that they weren’t informed an amendment was coming until they already had made a motion to vote on the Senate’s bill.

The House also voted to approve LD 1820, which would direct DHHS to study the use of Maine EBT cards out of state and report back to the Legislature. It’s a watered-down version of a bill proposed by LePage to ban all use of EBT cards outside Maine. The Senate is likely to give final approval to the bill later this week.

Also given final approval in the House was a measure by Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, directing DHHS to make annual reports to the Legislature on verified cases of welfare fraud and abuse.

Two other bills by LePage — one to require applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to demonstrate they had applied for three jobs and another to eliminate a “good cause” exemption from required participation in job-training program for TANF recipients — already have been killed by the Legislature.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

 

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