AUGUSTA, Maine — Legislative Democrats released a welfare reform agenda on Thursday, mixing proposals to ban using cash assistance to buy lottery tickets with other changes aimed at increasing accountability and transitioning recipients to work.
It puts Democrats in a difficult place: Republicans called the plan an election-year ploy to capitalize on a popular conservative argument, while an advocate for low-income people says while elements of it are good, the ban on using cash aid to buy certain items “plays to negative stereotypes” about recipients.
Key elements of the plan, which House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, and Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland, rolled out at a State House news conference on Thursday, include:
— Blocking the use of electronic benefit transfer cards under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to purchase lottery tickets, alcohol, bail, firearms or ammunition, tattoos and other products.
— Reducing cash assistance by about $5 million and converting it to a housing reimbursement paid directly to landlords.
— Building “customized bridges to independence that include transitional jobs, training and education, and streamlined coordination of appropriate services to ensure Mainers get the tools they need to succeed.”
— Establishing a citizen oversight board to monitor “measurable benchmarks to ensure welfare programs effectively lift families out of poverty, and get Mainers back to work.”
The lottery ticket ban has been on Democrats’ radar since December 2015, when the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting found that public assistance recipients won more than $22 million in lottery prizes since 2010, likely meaning they spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the lottery.
Alfond has led that effort for his party, saying on Thursday that Mainers are “disgusted” when they find that aid recipients can withdraw cash from ATMs to buy cigarettes and alcohol.
But overall, Democrats couched the plan as a way to improve accountability in the system. Alfond said rather than using welfare as “a political football,” legislators should work to improve the system.
“Mainers are compassionate, but they want accountability,” Eves said. “That’s what this is: It’s welfare that works.”
Gov. Paul LePage won re-election in 2014 on a platform of welfare reform, and his administration has aggressively pursued cuts and other changes to the system. That includes a 60-month TANF limit that the Maine Children’s Alliance has largely blamed for more Maine children living in poverty. The number of children receiving assistance decreased from nearly 24,000 in 2011 to just over 10,000 in late 2014.
But this isn’t the first time restrictions on TANF have been proposed. The plan’s unveiling came the same day as a public hearing on a LePage bill to tighten work requirements.
A bill from Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, that would have similarly tightened the program to exclude purchases of lottery tickets and tattoos, along with a ban on EBT card use outside of Maine, died last year after it was rejected by the Democrat-led House. House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, sponsored a similar unsuccessful bill that the LePage administration criticized for not going far enough.
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said the governor is willing to work with Democrats on the purchase ban, but she called the rest of the proposal dead on arrival as an expansion of the system.
“It is, however, an election year, and this appears to be an attempt by Democrats to get a Hail Mary in the fourth quarter to get a win because they know Mainers want welfare reform,” she said.
The two bills constituting the package, which are sponsored by Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, and Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, were considered by a legislative committee on Thursday afternoon.
Robyn Merrill, executive director of the Maine Equal Justice Partners, an anti-poverty group, praised Democrats for “coming out with a proactive strategy to address the immediate need” to address poverty and improve the system, but she expressed “concerns” about the product ban and the direct cash transfer to landlords.
She said the ban “plays to negative stereotypes about people with low income,” and “there are a number of basic needs that would require someone to have cash” instead of a landlord payment.
“So, accountability, great,” Merrill said. “But some of the language around the ‘disgusted,’ we just don’t see data supporting that there’s a lot of this abuse going on.”