EDITORIALS

LePage’s welfare reform agenda grows bureaucracy

A toxicology lab that screens urine samples for drug use.
Photo courtesy U.S. Navy
A toxicology lab that screens urine samples for drug use.
Posted Aug. 07, 2014, at 10:47 a.m.

Gov. Paul LePage has long fashioned himself a reformer of the state’s welfare programs. But the “reforms” he has pursued are better characterized as bureaucracy-growing obstacles that serve to delay or deny assistance rather than make state assistance programs more efficient and more effective in helping people overcome poverty.

LePage’s move to implement a three-year-old law that allows the state to drug-test welfare recipients with drug felony convictions on their records is just the latest.

On its surface, it might seem like a small step to ensure public assistance distributed through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program isn’t misspent on illegal drugs. But similar policies in other states have proven both legally questionable and wasteful.

In 2011, Florida implemented a law requiring all TANF applicants to submit to drug tests at their own expense. The state carried out the law for just four months in 2011 before a federal judge issued an injunction that put it on hold. Last year, a federal judge struck down the law for good.

The policy proved a wasteful boondoggle for Florida — that Republican Gov. Rick Scott doggedly defended in court at taxpayer expense. According to documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, 2.6 percent of TANF applicants — 108 people — tested positive for drug use in the four months during which the law was in effect. The state had to reimburse the remaining 97.4 percent of applicants for the cost of their drug tests.

The final cost to Florida — before even considering the legal expense of defending an unconstitutional law in court — was $118,140, about $46,000 more than the state would have paid out in benefits to those who tested positive for drug use, most of whom tested positive for using marijuana.

Maine’s law is admittedly different: The state will test only those applicants and recipients with drug felonies on their records rather than all applicants; it won’t force them to pay for their own drug tests (which DHHS says will cost $20 to $50 apiece); and recipients can keep their benefits if they enroll in a substance abuse treatment program. But the Florida example shows that there’s virtually no likelihood the state will save money from its drug test policy.

The drug test policy simply serves as the latest barrier for some who need assistance — and another step in an application process for benefits that is becoming progressively more cumbersome as a result of LePage’s welfare “reforms.”

As a result of those changes, the state Department of Health and Human Services is snapping photos of food stamp recipients so they can be placed on their electronic benefits transfer cards. And the department is complicating the food stamp renewal process for many recipients, requiring that they visit regional DHHS offices for in-person interviews and photos rather than allowing the over-the-phone renewals that Maine has long allowed.

At the local level, DHHS’ new requirement that towns and cities not issue general assistance to undocumented immigrants adds another complication to the application process for that benefit.

LePage ran for governor in 2010 promising wholesale changes to Maine’s welfare programs with an eye toward lifting people out of poverty. As his campaign for reelection swings into full gear, however, LePage is focused exclusively on punitive measures that stigmatize those who receive benefits, keep many from getting necessary assistance, and force DHHS staff to spend their time implementing new requirements rather than working to help clients.

While LePage has railed against state bureaucracy and called middle managers in state government “corrupt,” the Republican governor is apparently happy to beef up bureaucracy in DHHS.

 

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