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More welfare reform eyed as top priority as LePage touts anti-fraud efforts

AUGUSTA – Republican Gov. Paul LePage on Friday touted his administration’s efforts to fight welfare fraud and hinted at additional reforms in the coming session.

“When I took office in January 2011, there were more than 39,000 individuals on [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] (39,171). Today, there are almost 16,000 fewer people on the program (23,498),” said LePage in his weekly address.

In addition to a 40 percent reduction in Maine’s TANF rolls, LePage said his administration has increased the number of fraud prosecutions and has hired 8 additional fraud investigators to continue flush out those who abuse public assistance programs.

Welfare Infographic

(Source: House Republican Office)

“We did this to protect Maine taxpayers and to care for our most needy,” said LePage, who is perhaps the only Maine governor to have used and reformed welfare programs.

“While some disabled Mainers sat on waiting lists for services, others who were capable of working collected benefits through fraud,” he said. “That is wrong.”


Republican Gov. Paul R. LePage

The governor also warned against Democratic attempts to expand welfare in Maine under the guise of providing free health care.

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“[We] must be careful of politicians who encourage more welfare by promising free health care,” he said. “The last time they promised free health care, we ended up with 750-million-dollars of welfare debt to Maine’s hospitals.”

LePage added that, thanks to legislation introduced by his administration, the welfare debt will be paid down next week.

Brent Littlefield, LePage’s top campaign consultant, said left-leaning interest groups have contributed to Maine’s dependency problem.

“For years liberal advocacy groups have swept welfare cost and fraud problems under the rug as they sought to make Maine a leader nationally in government welfare spending,” he said. “

As someone who faced poverty in his youth and overcame it, Governor LePage promised he would reform welfare.  His reforms are already showing success,” he said. “People are coming off welfare and finding work.”

[RELATED: LePage plan for welfare debt moves forward...]

Welfare reform and fraud are controversial issues for Maine policymakers. Most Mainers know of the anecdotal evidence – EBT cards buying alcohol and cigarettes; the guy who works “under the table” while also collecting benefits; benefits sold or traded for drugs. Yet those who seek to prevent such fraud are often lampooned by Democrats and the main stream media as engaging in witch hunts to the detriment of the poor.

The rising number of fraud prosecutions announced by the governor’s office indicates that welfare fraud is no myth.

Before the Republican-led reforms of the 125th Legislature, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) was not Temporary. One could theoretical be on the program for a lifetime. The GOP reforms simply aligned the program with the promise contained in its name. By establishing a 5-year limit to the public assistance program, the state provided a hardline incentive for individuals to achieve independence.

[RELATED: New report says Maine welfare benefits trump working wages...]

Robert Rector, senior research fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Foundation, told me putting time limits on TANF is useful, but that additional reforms, such as implementing an activity requirement, would raise employment and reduce government dependence.

Rector, hailed by National Review Online’s Rich Lowry as the “intellectual godfather” of welfare reform, played a major role in crafting the federal Gingrich-era welfare overhaul of 1996.

“The essence of the welfare reform from the 90’s was that able bodied individuals should receive aid but should engage in activities to become self-sufficient,” said Rector.  “I can pretty much guarantee that at least half of the adults on the TANF program are currently receiving benefits without being required to do any activity. That would be typical across the country,”

He said these activities can include community service, training, or supervised job search. “The experience is that when you do any of those things – so that there is a basic requirement that people need to get out of their houses – employment will go up and welfare dependence will go down. And that’s what drove down welfare caseloads by about 60 percent in the mid-90s.”

Rector said national polling data consistently shows that a majority of the American people support tying welfare benefits with activity requirements.

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According to both LePage and Republicans in the House, additional welfare reforms will be on the table in the coming session of the Legislature.

“We are pleased with the results of our efforts to reduce welfare and prosecute fraud,” said LePage. “But we know there is much more work to be done. That is why we will continue to push for more welfare reforms in the next legislative session.”

House Minority Leader Ken Fredette (R-New Port) agreed, saying Republicans are “absolutely committed” to reducing welfare dependency and fighting fraud.

“Working in concert with the Governor’s Office and state agencies, we will introduce and advocate for additional reform legislation during next year’s session.  Hopefully the Democrats will stand as a partner in this reform effort instead of continuing to be an obstacle to it.”

Both Republicans declined to comment on the specific nature of future reform proposals, which must be introduced before the Legislature’s cloture date on Sept. 27.

Democrats in the 126th Legislature have already blocked significant bipartisan welfare reforms, including bills to prevent welfare benefits from being used to purchase junk food, alcohol and cigarettes.

welfare-1S.E. Robinson
MaineWire Reporter


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