AUGUSTA, Maine — The federal government recently chastised Maine for processing food stamp applications more slowly than any other state during the first half of 2015, igniting a war of words on Monday between Democrats and Gov. Paul LePage’s administration.

However, the Republican’s welfare chief blamed problems cited by federal regulators on the implementation of a new system to handle applications, saying it’s making “great strides” in compliance.

Between January and June, Maine processed between 69 percent and 79 percent of cases in a timely fashion, according to a letter sent last week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the food stamps program, to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

The USDA considers 95 percent to be acceptable and it said Maine has shown “chronically poor performance,” falling from 36th in the nation last year to last. Federal law gives eligible families the right to benefits within 30 days or within seven days if requests are expedited.

The letter says that if the state doesn’t take “swift and immediate action” to comply with federal standards by next year, it could lose federal funding that pays for half the costs of administering the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, amounting to $10.2 million in 2014.

The letter — and tension between the administration and Democrats — comes after changes to the program: The department said in October that less than 200,000 Mainers were getting food stamps, down from a high of nearly 256,000 in 2012.

In 2014, Maine instituted a work requirement for recipients that cut food stamp rolls by thousands. Later that year, it sparred with the USDA on a photo ID requirement for recipients and in September, it announced that it would restart an asset test.

Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said in a statement that the USDA’s findings demonstrate that the LePage administration “has shown a brazen disregard for accountability.”

However, Mary Mayhew, commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said she’s “offended by the assertions by some Democrats that our actions are depriving benefits” from those who need them.

She said the USDA review came as the state was transitioning from a paper-intensive system of handling applications to a “modernized” one that will improve processing. Currently, 13 percent of applications are outside the 30-day window and Saturday overtime hours have been authorized to process applications, said Samantha Edwards, a DHHS spokeswoman.

“We are simply moving our system into the 21st century to strengthen program integrity and quality assurance,” Mayhew said, “and we are making great strides.”

But Robyn Merrill, executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners, a liberal anti-poverty group, said many SNAP applicants have called to complain of slow processing during the past year. She said the administration’s changes to the program have increased “layers of bureaucracy” for staff.

“People are applying for food because they’re hungry today, not two weeks or a month from now, so it’s really troubling,” she said.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...