AUGUSTA – In a surprise move, House Speaker Mark W. Eves (D-North Berwick) ordered Democrats on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee (HHS) to kill a bill from Gov. Paul R. LePage that would allow the state to exclude junk food from eligible food stamp purchases.
State House sources said Friday that Democrats’ last-minute decision to oppose the bill came after the House Speaker’s top legal adviser Alysia Melnick of Cape Elizabeth, entered the committee room and delivered marching orders for Democratic leadership.
Sources said that prior to Melnick’s involvement, the Governor’s bill seemed destined for passage, and that the decision was likely aimed at denying the governor a victory on welfare reform.
“It was a huge surprise to the Republicans on the committee when the Democrats came out of a meeting and decided to kill the bill,” said Rep. Deborah Sanderson (R-Chelsea), the ranking House Republican on the HHS Committee. “It seems they’re just no longer interested in attaching even the most commonsense rules to welfare consumption in Maine.”
The governor’s bill, sponsored by five Republicans and five Democrats, seemed like an opportunity for bipartisan reform of Maine’s growing and dysfunctional welfare program. Public health advocates, who typically side with liberal Democrats on matters pertaining to HHS, supported the measure as a means to ensure healthy eating practices among Maine’s poorest families. Republicans and conservatives supported the measure as matter of fiscal responsibility.
LePage said Democrats have chosen their ideology over common-sense.
“Democrats once again have demonstrated an extreme agenda by obstructing any and all common-sense welfare reforms,” said LePage. “The inconsistency of the majority party continues to stun me.”
“On one hand, they talk about wanting to reduce health care costs. But on the other hand, they encourage people to eat junk food with absolutely no nutritional value, all while being funded by Maine taxpayers.”
Said LePage, “Maine people can simply not afford a government that squanders their valuable tax dollars. Mainers expect their elected officials to make the tough decisions needed to improve Maine’s economy and the lives of the people who live here.”
“Enabling welfare recipients to buy junk food with taxpayer money doesn’t accomplish either.”
The 8-5 vote to kill the bill split exactly along party lines, but is not the end of the conversation over welfare reform. The bill will head to the floor of the House and Senate, where members will have an opportunity to vote for or against continuing to allow food stamp users to buy junk food with taxpayer cash.