LePage seeks to lock tougher welfare rules into law

Posted March 28, 2017, at 10:55 a.m.
Last modified March 28, 2017, at 2:45 p.m.

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AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage unveiled a proposal Tuesday that would enshrine a smattering of welfare changes enacted and proposed by his administration in Maine law, putting his stamp on state policy by making them harder for a future governor to undo.

The Republican governor’s bill would shorten the lifetime limit for Maine families under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program from five years to three years, also codifying a work requirement for the same program and establishing a $5,000 asset test on certain households that get food stamps.

Many of the components are familiar, representing new versions of past LePage initiatives: The limit change under TANF is in LePage’s current two-year budget proposal, and he has long advocated reinstating work requirements in the program that were waived in Maine and other states during the recession.

In a State House news conference Tuesday, LePage took aim at Democrats in the Maine Legislature who have blocked many of his proposals to trim the state’s welfare rolls, noting that many of the proposed changes were enacted as rules imposed by his Department of Health and Human Services.

“They can also be reversed by the next governor,” he said. “That is why it’s so important to make these common-sense reforms permanent in state law.”

The bill hasn’t been written yet, but the proposed changes — packaged as the Welfare Reform for Increased Security and Employment Act and sponsored by House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport — will include the following:

— Placing photographs on electronic benefits cards

— Banning or suspending parents not cooperating with child support services from receiving food assistance

— Disqualifying lottery and gambling winners of $5,000 or more from receiving food assistance

— Requiring education programs paid for with TANF money to be for jobs with average or better outlooks

— Banning repeat felony drug offenders from receiving food assistance

— Disqualifying all adults in a household from receiving TANF if an individual is convicted of welfare-related theft or fraud

LePage has long sought changes to social service programs in Maine that he says push more people off public programs and into the workforce.

“These reforms have restored confidence in Maine’s welfare system for the taxpayers who fund them,” LePage said during a news conference at the State House. “An able-bodied, 30-year-old man without kids should not be able to collect food stamps.”

The LePage administration has had some success moving welfare proposals through the Legislature, such as limiting the TANF program to a five-year lifetime cap and preventing the use of TANF funds for alcohol, but many others have been rejected by the Legislature.

But Democrats have argued that his initiatives led to increased poverty and hunger in Maine. The TANF cases dropped from just over 25,000 in 2011 to less than 8,000 in February. The share of Maine children in extreme poverty rose from 18,000 to 23,000 between 2011 and 2014, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Based on January state data, the three-year time limit would affect 1,500 children on the program. Mayhew defended that change, saying the state must move away from programs that allow “a continuous time on a benefit.”

Democrats are likely to stand in the way of LePage’s bill, with Rep. Patty Hymanson, D-York, the co-chairwoman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, saying in a statement that the administration’s policies have created “lasting damage.”

“We’ve driven children and families deeper into poverty, increased childhood hunger and removed basic health care from struggling families,” she said. “If this is what their definition of reform looks like, I’m not interested in expanding them any further.”

Dozens of members of the Maine Council of Churches, Maine Equal Justice Partners and other organizations stood silently outside the news conference, many of them holding signs that read “I support a moral budget.”

Jacqueline Berry, a member of Grace Episcopal Church in Bath, was among them. She said Maine needs more funding to help people in need.

“This is not a deficit budget. We do not need to reserve those funds,” she said. “Some of the budget requests before us are unreasonable. We want to feed more children, not less. Our churches and nonprofits are doing as much as they can in the state but the need is growing.”

 

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