AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage and Senate President Mike Thibodeau of Winterport unveiled a new bill Monday that represents a second attempt by Republicans to forward their welfare reform goals.
The bill, presented during a news conference Monday afternoon at the State House, is aimed at the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which provides cash benefits to low-income families with children.
The bill has not yet been printed, which caused Democrats to warn that it could include provisions that LePage and Thibodeau are not yet talking about.
“What gets said at a press conference and the actual contents of a bill are two different things,” said House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan. “We want to wait and see what’s in the bill.”
The bill includes:
— Creating a requirement that TANF applicants prove they have applied for three jobs before receiving benefits.
— Prohibiting the use of an Electronic Benefits Transfer Card, which is a debit card-like system the state uses to administer some benefits, outside Maine.
— Outlawing the use of TANF benefits for the purchase of tobacco, liquor, imitation liquor, gambling, lottery tickets, tattoos and bail.
— Removing all exceptions, other than for domestic violence victims, to the requirement that all TANF recipients participate in the TANF-ASPIRE work training program.
— Reducing the 24-month limit on education, training and treatment for ASPIRE-TANF participants to 12 months to conform with federal rules.
— Making changes to the Alternative Aid program to align it with the TANF program, preventing TANF recipients from using Alternative Aid as a loophole to avoid Maine’s 60-month lifetime cap on TANF benefits. Unlike most of the other provisions in the bill, this is a new initiative that has not been attempted by LePage in the past.
— Imposing a six-month termination of benefits after the third violation of these rules.
Thibodeau and LePage said they are reintroducing these measures because they believe LePage’s re-election and Republican gains in the Legislature demonstrate that Maine residents support tighter restrictions on public benefits in Maine, despite the fact that similar measures proposed previously failed to survive in the Democrat-controlled 126th Legislature.
“We tried some of these same bills last year but our liberal friends said no,” said LePage during Monday’s news conference. “They made all sorts of excuses. As you saw in November, the people of Maine didn’t buy it. They’re demanding reform, they expect reform and we are going to give them reform.”
On hand at Monday’s event were two women who said they have gone from being on public assistance to independence and higher-paying jobs because of government programs.
“It felt good to receive a paycheck that I earned myself,” said Jill Rothrock, who now works at the Department of Health and Human Services in Ellsworth. “The system makes it too easy to spend on things like drugs or alcohol or bail friends out of jails. That creates a stigma that doesn’t need to exist.”
Robyn Merrill, executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners, said the proposals represent more of the same from LePage: proposing cuts to programs that thousands of Mainers depend on to feed their families and maintain homes.
“We agree that the goal should be moving people from poverty to prosperity,” said Merrill. “While we want to support getting people to work, we also have to recognize that there are certain challenges families face in this economy. Let’s focus on making sure that families can access a livable wage and provide for those families instead of making these changes that push families into deeper poverty.”
McCabe said Democrats are worried about the unintended consequences of limiting TANF but are willing to work with LePage on many of the initiatives.
For example, McCabe has sponsored a bill that would limit how TANF money could be spent, and Democratic Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, is proposing a tiered system of moving people away from welfare, which LePage said Monday is a concept for which he also is developing a proposal.
“Kicking people off of TANF, really in the end it’s only children who lose out,” said McCabe. “That’s what we’re really concerned about as Democrats.”