Gov. Paul LePage and House Minority Leader Ken Fredette (R-Newport) emphasized their own struggles with poverty as they introduced four bills aimed at reining in welfare abuses and orienting the TANF program toward work.
“Welfare reform has been a priority in my administration and it’s time that we really start taking it seriously here in Maine,” said LePage.
“Since 1964, when I was young, we said we were going to have a war on poverty. And,frankly, you’ve heard me say we’ve lost it. And yes, we’re going to continue to lose the war on poverty. Because what we have done in this country, is we throw money at a problem and we turn our backs on the problem because we think money is going to fix it. But money is not going to fix it,” he said. “Education is going to fix it.”
“If we’re going to reform welfare, what we have to do is make the resources available to those who are truly needy. And then we have to have oversight to make sure that the money and the resources are spent where they’re supposed to be,” said LePage.
“The middle-income taxpayers who pay all the bills — they don’t want to be taken advantage of,” he said. “So let’s have a program that works. Let’s not have a program where you can use your EBT card to buy cigarettes, to buy lottery tickets, to buy liquor, alcohol, and the children go without.”
Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew stepped up to explain the bills intended to realize the administration’s goals.
“These bills support our desire to move people back to work and self-sufficiency while also assuring that taxpayer dollars are used for the essentials of everyday living to support families and their children,” said Mayhew. She explained the administration’s four-pronged approach:
- L.D. 1815 – An Act To Require a Work Search for Job-Ready Applicants for Benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program: This bill would create a frontend work search requirement for TANF applicants.
- L.D. 1820 – An Act To Reduce Abuse of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program through Restriction of Electronic Benefits Transfers: This bill 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: This bill would bring prohibit EBT cards from being used on alcohol, tobacco, gambling, lottery tickets or bail.
- L.D. 1842 – An Act To Amend the Laws Governing the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program: Eliminates statutory exemptions that allow TANF recipients to get around work requirements.
“Limiting the use of TANF funds for the basics of everyday living for a family in need is, to put it bluntly, a no-brainer,” said Mayhew. “Every dollar spent on alcohol, tobacco, lottery tickets, bail, or in strip clubs or casinos, is a dollar taken away from a child in need,” she said.
Mayhew provided new information about the cost of TANF abuse for taxpayers. She said $1.5 million has been spent by individuals who used cards exclusively out of state for two consecutive months. “In addition, more than 500 individuals made 2,600 transactions with their TANF EBT card out of state for 6 consecutive months totaling $835,000,” said Mayhew.
When an EBT card is used exclusively outside of Maine for several consecutive months, the individual using the card may not be a Maine resident.
“We can eliminate all of these transactions with legislation that does not allow out of state purchases,” she said.
The TANF program serves approximately 7,700 Maine families per year. It provides parents of needy children with a monthly cash stipend that is supposed to be spent on things like winter boots, dish detergent, and other basic necessities not covered by food stamps.
However, since TANF pays out on a cash basis, the state has no way of policing how it’s spent.
In January, a Maine Wire investigation found widespread abuse of the TANF program. Over the last three years, according to data provided by DHHS, Maine EBT cards have been used at liquor stores, smoke shops, amusement parks, bowling alleys, bars, and strip clubs.
Additionally, Maine EBT cards have been used in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Democrats in the Legislature have signaled resistance to Republican efforts to combat welfare abuse.
Although Democrats insist the solution lies in effective prosecution of welfare fraud, they may be misunderstanding the problem. The way the law currently stands, it is not illegal for someone to use their TANF benefit at Disney World or in a liquor store. In most cases of clear abuse, there is no crime to prosecute.
Rep. Fredette appeared pessimistic about whether Democrats would be willing partners in the effort to reform TANF.
“Democrats are not engaged in this conversation,” said Fredette.
House Speaker Mark Eves (D-North Berwick), at a press conference shortly following the governor’s, said his party would support “good-faith” efforts at welfare reform, but much depends on the specifics. Although Eves strongly supported limitations on EBT cards when it comes to alcohol, tobacco and gambling, he was critical of the front-end work search requirement.
“Democrats are not interested nor have ever supported these funds going to buy alcohol, cigarettes, bail and lottery tickets. That’s absurd,” he said. But Eves would not say outright that he will support L.D. 1822.
As for L.D. 1815, Eves said there is no evidence that a frontend work search requirement helps people get back to work. “When we look at the that policy in other states, we know that that only prevents people from finding good paying jobs,” he said.
Both LePage and Fredette aimed their remarks at dispelling the notion that Republicans are out to harm the poor.
Fredette talked about growing up in a large, poor family in Washington County that because his father shot “probably one more deer than he was supposed to.”
“Republicans understand poverty, many of us have lived poverty,” he said.
In addition to the four welfare reform bills, the LePage administration will move forward with an initiative to place photo identification on EBT cards.
The HHS Committee will hold public hearings on all four welfare reform bills Tuesday.