EDITORIALS

LePage defies feds again in enforcing EBT photo requirement that’s unenforceable

This is a sample photo EBT card.
Linda Coan O'Kresik
This is a sample photo EBT card. Buy Photo
Posted June 30, 2014, at 7:37 p.m.
Last modified July 01, 2014, at 8:53 a.m.

Gov. Paul LePage last week stepped up his efforts to keep many immigrants from receiving General Assistance benefits from the towns and cities where they live.

This week, the administration has doubled down on another wasted effort under the guise of welfare reform — and again, it’s going against the wishes of the federal government.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ two-month-old pilot project in which the agency has placed recipient photos on 2,200 electronic benefits transfer, or EBT, cards is going statewide, the department announced Monday.

The department two months ago followed through with its voluntary pilot project in the Bangor region despite warnings from the federal government to hold off. On Monday, the federal government urged the state to hold off on taking the program statewide, cautioning Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew that the state is risking federal food stamp funding if the state’s EBT card photo program violates federal law.

“Ensuring that basic implementation steps including client and retailer notification and issuance of state policy have been completed is critical to successful rollout,” the federal Food and Nutrition and Services’ acting Northeast regional administrator, Kurt Messner, said in a letter to Mayhew on Monday afternoon. “Therefore, we are strongly urging that you delay statewide implementation until FNS receives and can fully review and approve the state’s plan.”

DHHS is moving ahead with this supposed photo ID requirement without following formal rulemaking procedures that state law requires when state agencies undertake major policy changes. And it’s skirting the proper channels of approval from the federal government, which allows photo IDs on EBT cards as long as the implementation doesn’t violate federal law.

To add to those concerns, DHHS is wasting precious time and resources pursuing this photo requirement that is costly to administer and ineffective at combating food stamp fraud. Massachusetts and Missouri have both had photo ID requirements on the books and dropped them because of cost and ineffectiveness.

To top it off, the provision is likely not even enforceable under federal law.

DHHS is calling the EBT card photo provision a requirement. But the department has no legal authority to enforce such a rule. While the state administers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — whose food stamp benefits are transmitted through the more than 200,000 EBT cards in Maine — federal rules govern the program. The federal law lays out a variety of conditions under which states can cut off, reduce or delay benefits, but failure to comply with a photo ID requirement is not one of them.

According to DHHS’ plans, the agency will inform EBT cardholders that their photos are required on EBT cards. Agency workers will snap the photos when beneficiaries visit their local DHHS offices to recertify their benefits or for any other purpose, according to the agency. But DHHS has no legal recourse to compel cardholders to visit their local DHHS office and have their photos taken and placed on their EBT cards.

Nonetheless, we can imagine many recipients will receive notice of the requirement and dutifully visit their local DHHS office to have their photos taken thinking their benefits will be cut off if they don’t comply.

Unless DHHS takes painstaking effort to explain to EBT cardholders that they’re not actually required to have photos on their cards, the department would be dishonestly communicating an unenforceable requirement to EBT cardholders.

By expanding the reach of its EBT card photo program, the LePage administration is keeping the focus on its welfare reforms. But it’s pursuing a requirement that other states have had on the books and dropped because of excessive administrative costs and lack of effectiveness as a fraud-fighting measure. And, under federal law, the LePage administration can’t even enforce this so-called requirement.

What else can this pursuit be called other than a politically motivated, dishonest waste of time and resources?

 

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