This week, the LePage administration continued the push for so-called welfare reform by releasing data on the out-of-state use of electronic benefits transfer system cards, which can be used for cash assistance under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew said there were 365,000 EBT transactions out of state in 2013, totaling $13.9 million.
That means, according to the administration, Maine should pass a law banning the use of EBT cash assistance across state lines.
Before gasping at the revelation that people with low incomes sometimes need to travel, let’s look at the data. How much of the $13.9 million spent out of state was actually withdrawn as cash, as opposed to being spent on food, since federal law requires all states to accept benefits for food purchases? DHHS didn’t know.
But the Portland Press Herald did the analysis, finding less than 2 percent of cash withdrawals — which already make up a small percentage of all EBT card use — were made outside Maine over three years. Half of those transactions were made in New Hampshire, 13 percent in Massachusetts and 3 percent in New York.
Most transactions on EBT cards were for separate Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, referred to as food stamps. The governor’s bill would only limit cash assistance, which recipients can spend without restrictions.
Was any of the out-of-state EBT use illegal? The administration wouldn’t say. What was the total EBT sum spent in Maine by out-of-staters? It didn’t say.
Why did Maine residents use their benefits out of state? It doesn’t know. But let’s list some possibilities: Residents saving money by shopping in New Hampshire; military families receiving benefits transferring to another state; migrant or seasonal farm workers returning south; domestic violence or divorce necessitating people to move in with family or friends in another state; or families moving to find work, seek medical help or care for aging or sick family members.
But why not assume the worst? Maybe the cash is being used on heroin, prostitutes, Lotto and gin. If so, those uses are already illegal under federal law. When Gov. Paul LePage has a solid plan for better enforcement of that law, he should say so.
Or perhaps the state is giving EBT cards to people who actually aren’t eligible. If so, doesn’t that point to a problem with the LePage administration’s eligibility determination system?
You can speculate either side, but speculation rarely leads to good lawmaking. Hence the need for such things as audits.
For example, Missouri’s 2013 audit of its EBT transactions found 249 suspicious cases of benefits being used at locations in non-bordering states for more than 90 consecutive days, out of 9,300 total out-of-state transactions.
But it also found that the addresses it had for some transactions did not match any physical location on a map. In addition, there were 44,907 transactions with no identifiable physical location at all; ABC Convenience Store was simply reported in the state’s system as being located at the address of ABC Convenience Store #1234. And there were 600 instances in which Missouri listed a transaction as being in a certain state when it was actually in another state.
Could Maine have similar system flaws? Imagine how well enforcement would work if the administration prohibited use of EBT benefits in other states but didn’t actually have a reliable way to detect out-of-state EBT use.
We haven’t even touched on the fair argument that restricting EBT use across state lines could be unconstitutional under the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which regulates the flow of commerce between states. If LePage wants to risk it, shouldn’t he at least know the stakes first?
The Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee seems to think so. It has amended the governor’s bill, LD 1820, to require DHHS to instead develop a report on out-of-state access to TANF program benefits, to be submitted to the committee no later than Nov. 1. If LePage were serious about welfare fraud, he would have had the numbers to begin with. But then his proposal would have had to reflect pesky reality.