AUGUSTA, Maine — A surreal reversal in the Maine Senate on Monday saw majority Democrats advance a bill to ban the use of welfare dollars for alcohol, tobacco, lottery tickets, gambling and bail, while Republicans voted against the clampdown — despite having originally supported it.
The move by Democrats, who narrowly approved the bill 18-17 Monday night, is an attempt to blunt Republicans’ attack line that they aren’t serious about welfare reform. Members of the GOP have advocated for wholesale reform of a system they consider too generous.
By passing the governor’s bill, the Democrats could have an effective rebuttal during the approaching campaign season — a bill in which they supported tighter restrictions on taxpayer-funded programs. It also allowed the majority party to flip the script on Republicans: Not long after the vote in the Senate, the majority office put out a press release blasting GOP senators for “squawking” about the need to ban the purchase of tobacco, liquor and the like but voting against it.
The bill, LD 1822, was submitted by the governor in March. As originally proposed, it would have prohibited dollars distributed through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program from being spent on the listed goods and activities.
On Monday, Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, proposed a version of the bill that barred such purchases and prohibited shops from accepting EBT cards — state-issued debit cards loaded with TANF cash and other benefits, including food stamps — for people buying any of the so-called “prohibited five.”
Patrick’s amendment went further, requiring TANF recipients to sign an agreement promising not to use their benefits for the prohibited five, and charging the Department of Health and Human Services with studying the costs of the proposed prohibition and reporting back to the Legislature.
Patrick said he submitted the amendment in deference to his constituents, who want welfare reform. Still, Republicans in the Senate unanimously voted against the proposal.
The reason, they said, was that penalties for violating the new rules aren’t stiff enough.
“The public wants real reform,” said Senate Minority Leader Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, after the vote. “They don’t want another study. They don’t want a written warning to people defrauding the system. They want real action.”
Under Patrick’s amendment, initial violations would result in a warning, while subsequent violations would cause the recipient to lose benefits for up to six months. Republicans said they want the same punishment that exists for people who use TANF cash to buy drugs or who sell their EBT cards illegally. Those violations can cause a recipient to lose their eligibility for years.
When asked whether it was better to reject their own proposal than to accept the decreased penalties, Thibodeau said he’s banking on voters to call out the majority party.
“I’m hoping that the public comes to the realization that Maine Democrats are trying to put together a weak package, and that there will be pushback and they’ll come to their senses,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said in an interview Monday night that Republicans had been disingenuous.
“For them, it’s not really about good policy or anything, it’s about putting Democrats on the spot,” Jackson said. “But the point is, we feel welfare fraud in all forms is wrong.”
LD 1822 is one of four welfare reform bills submitted by Republican Gov. Paul LePage, and the only one that had much chance of attracting bipartisan support. Any Democrat in the State House will say that no one wants TANF cash being used to fund vice purchases or bail.
Left out of the discussion is how to enforce the proposal. TANF funds can be used with a swipe of an EBT card or withdrawn from an ATM. Once that cash is taken out, it’s untraceable.
That could be a sticking point for the majority of Democrats in the House, where the bill will now head for concurrence. Its approval there is no sure thing.
Two of the provisions in Patrick’s amendment originated in proposals by House Majority Whip Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, and Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland. McCabe and Russell’s amendments were defeated in the House, which approved a version of the bill that banned the use of EBT cards at smoke shops — but not the use of TANF cash on tobacco — and directed DHHS to institute an education regime about proper use of welfare funds.
Democrats’ traditional allies on welfare policy may even turn out to pressure lawmakers in the House to reject the Senate’s proposal.
Christine Hastedt, public policy director for Maine Equal Justice, said her organization opposes the Senate’s plan because it is unenforceable, and that Democrats should not feel forced into supporting what she said was a bad plan.
“I think [Democrats] think they’ve heard from their constituents on this issue,” she said. “But if you ask, ‘Do you want to pass a law that cannot be enforced?’ we think they’d say no.”
Two of LePage’s other bills — one that would have required TANF applicants provide proof of job applications before receiving benefits and another that would have eliminated an exception to the job-training requirement for recipients — were rejected by the Senate on Monday night, after meeting the same fate in the House last week.
The governor also had proposed a bill to restrict the use of Maine EBT cards to be used in Maine only. That proposal was turned into a study bill in the House last week and the Senate concurred Monday night.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.