We hope it is hyperbole, but Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew’s recent threats that Maine may stop participating in the federal food stamp program are reckless and unwarranted.
Despite clear indications that Maine’s program to include photos on electronic benefit cards needs changes so it does not run afoul of federal rules, Mayhew said the state will push ahead with the program on its own terms. In fact, she said at the opening of a new state office in South Portland that the state would consider not participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program if the federal government withholds administrative funding as a penalty for problems with the EBT card photo project.
“If the federal government takes a financial action against us that is baseless, we will have to question our ability to administer the program,” Mayhew said.
Maine administers SNAP on behalf of the federal government, which funds the entire cost of benefits and roughly half the costs to run the program. Food and Nutrition Services, the U.S. Department of Agriculture division that oversees SNAP, has threatened to pull its share of administrative funding, roughly $8.9 million, if Maine does not change the photo ID policy to meet its requirements. A key FNS objection is that Maine has not made it clear — to recipients and retailers — that the photos are voluntary.
In 2013, the most recent year for which a report is available, Maine paid about $9.7 million in administrative costs, while the federal government paid about $376 million in benefits and administration to provide food assistance to low-income Mainers.
If the state ended its participation in running SNAP, food assistance to the hundreds of thousands of SNAP recipients in Maine would be in jeopardy. There are not other entities that administer the program.
The loss of SNAP benefits would not only be a blow to the nearly 250,000 low-income residents who depend on them, but also to Maine grocery stores, big box stores, convenience stores and farmers’ markets. What such entities take in from the SNAP program is confidential to protect retailers, according to the Department of Agriculture. But Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon, a former head of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, says he supports more transparency, and the department is considering ways to get information to the public. Wal-Mart is the largest recipient of food stamp dollars, getting about 18 percent of the total nationwide, according to information from the company that has been leaked.
This is just the latest salvo in the LePage administration’s “welfare reform” agenda. On Jan. 1, 6,500 SNAP recipients without children stopped receiving benefits unless they were working, in job training or volunteering.
The administration is finalizing new rules to require a drug use questionnaire — which could trigger drug testing — for recipients of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families with past drug-related convictions. Broad-based, suspicionless drug testing of applicants for public assistance has been deemed unconstitutional in other states, so Maine is trying to narrow its approach to avoid such challenges.
In addition, the administration is in the midst of a legal battle with Portland, Westbrook and the Maine Municipal Association over General Assistance benefits. LePage has said he will withhold reimbursements to towns that give GA to undocumented immigrants.
On the Medicaid front, a federal appeals court in November rejected Maine’s move to remove about 6,000 19- to 20-year-olds from the state’s Medicaid program. That legal battle, which the governor threatens to take to the U.S. Supreme Court, cost the administration $53,000 in legal fees last year, according to the Associated Press, after Attorney General Janet Mills refused to represent the state’s interests because she believed the legal claim was without merit.
The LePage administration’s “welfare reform” agenda has proven to be more about political posturing and needless fights with the federal government and municipalities over scaling back benefits than meaningful changes. The LePage administration would do better in its second term to focus on job creation and growing the economy to lift people out of poverty.