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Welfare reform bills get quiet public hearing

welfare reform presser LePage

Gov. Paul LePage speaks to reporters about his welfare reform proposals

AUGUSTA – The talk was all about welfare Tuesday as the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee debated four bills that would reform Maine’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

All four bills were introduced by Republican Gov. Paul LePage, though two were originally introduced by House Minority Leader Ken Fredette (R-Newport).

“Maine’s welfare system is broken and something must be done,” Fredette said in his testimony before the HHS committee.

His testimony focused on L.D. 1815, An Act To Require a Work Search for Job-Ready Applicants for Benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program, which was initially rejected by the Democrat-controlled Legislative Council.

Fredette said his bill would require those seeking TANF assistance to prove that they have applied for at least three jobs. He said that 19 other states, including Vermont and Georgia, have adopted similar requirements, known as a frontend job search requirement.

In those states, he said, TANF enrollment has decreased significantly. “This tells us there may be some people out there who are able to work but don’t want to,” said Fredette.

According to the LePage administration, the bill is aimed at improving Maine’s workforce participation rate in order to avoid nearly $13 million in fines from the federal government.

The bill, as currently written, would apply the job search requirement only to “work-ready” or “able-bodied” applicants. Democrats on the committee were critical of L.D. 1815 due to the definition of what constitutes work-ready and able-bodied. That question will be among many likely to be sorted out during the work session on Wednesday.

The second bill originally introduced by Fredette was L.D. 1842, An Act To Amend the Laws Governing the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program. This bill was developed in conversation with DHHS employees who said exemptions in the TANF statute were being exploited. The bill would eliminate statutory exemptions that allow TANF recipients to get around work requirements.

LePage’s legislation would place restrictions on where and how Electronic Transfer Benefit (EBT) cards can be used.

L.D. 1820, An Act To Reduce Abuse of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program through Restriction of Electronic Benefits Transfers, would restrict the use of a Maine EBT card to within the state.

L.D. 1822, An Act To Increase Integrity in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program through Restriction of Expenditures, would bring Maine into conformity with federal law by prohibiting EBT cards from being used on alcohol, tobacco, gambling, lottery tickets or bail.

Questions on the geographic restriction bill centered mostly on what to do about TANF recipients living on the New Hampshire border. In some cases, it may be more convenient for welfare recipients to shop in the Granite State. For that reason, lawmakers expressed interest in amending the bill to allow EBT card use within New England.

The hearings were mostly tame with much deferred to Wednesday’s work session, but there were some exceptions.

One representative on the HHS Committe questioned why anyone would want to prevent welfare cash from going toward bail.

“If you haven’t been proven guilty, and you’re part of a family, and we’re trying to support families, it would seem like a logical thing to use [welfare cash] for,” said Rep. Peter Stuckey (D-Portland).

Although House Speaker Mark Eves (D-North Berwick) indicated Tuesday that Democrats would likely support L.D. 1822, some progressive activists testified in opposition at the public hearing.

Jim Devine, Homeless Voices for Justice, testified against all four bills. Devine did not discriminate between the bills and included L.D. 1822 in his criticism, effectively arguing that TANF recipients should be able to spend their welfare on beer and cigarettes.

“L.D. 1822 would add even more restrictions to families who use TANF to get by,” he said. “This bill is another measure that makes people who are struggling to get by out to look like the bad guys,” he said.

“L.D. 1822 is a step backwards for Maine families,” he said.

Not every Democrat was immediately hostile to welfare reform.

Rep. Terry Hayes (D-Buckfield) said she was supporting L.D. 1822 because it was in line with the goals of the TANF program.

“I don’t believe that TANF funds should be used to exacerbate the vulnerability of our most vulnerable,” said Hayes.

Although Hayes was the only Democrat who testified in favor of a welfare reform bill, State House sources say many Democrats will support at least one reform bill.

Democratic lawmakers find themselves in a politically precarious predicament.

On the one hand, welfare reform is enormously popular with voters. But on the other, supporting LePage’s welfare reforms could give him a major policy victory heading into his 2014 reelection campaign. So while Democrats are mindful of their constituents’ desire for reform, they also fear strengthening the governor’s case for reelection.

In January, The Maine Wire’s investigation into the TANF program exposed widespread abuse of the cash welfare program. According to DHHS records, TANF welfare cash has been accessed thousands of times at liquor stores, bars, cigarette shops, gambling establishments, amusement parks, and strip clubs. Records also show Maine EBT cards have been used in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

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