AUGUSTA – Republican efforts to reform Maine’s welfare system have likely failed this year following the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives’ rejection of four bills aimed at modifying the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash welfare program.
On nearly party line votes Thursday evening, all four TANF reform proposals supported by Republican Gov. Paul LePage were defeated. The only provision supported by Democrats was a ban on welfare spending in smoke shops — a clever political maneuver that will allow liberal representatives to claim in November that they did vote for reform.
“I’m appalled that liberal legislators would reject these common-sense bills to reform our welfare system,” the governor said Friday in a prepared statement.
“Despite overwhelming data and firsthand accounts by well-respected law enforcement officials, liberals keep saying welfare fraud and abuse is ‘anecdotal’,” he said. “Mainers are rightfully outraged their hard-earned tax dollars are being abused, and they know these liberals are out of touch with reality.”
The four bills constituted a comprehensive set of TANF reforms that would have limited how welfare cash can be spent, where it can be spent, and strengthened parts of the program that encourage welfare recipients to find employment.
Two bills, originally introduced by House Minority Leader Ken Fredette (R-Newport), would have implemented a frontend job search requirement and eliminated statutory exemptions that allow welfare recipients to avoid work searches.
In practice, the frontend job search bill would have required welfare seekers to apply for three jobs before obtaining benefits. The second of Fredette’s bills, which was developed in concert with Department of Health and Human Services staff, would have eliminated exemptions that welfare recipients can use to skip out of work searches for almost any reason.
Two proposals that came from the governor would have prevented welfare recipients from using their Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards outside of Maine and blocked purchases of prohibited goods, such as alcohol, tobacco, and lottery tickets.
An initial sticking point with Democrats was a portion of the governor’s bill that eliminated the Parents as Scholars (PAS) program, which provides a host of benefits to poor parents while they attend school. In response to Democratic complaints at the bills’ public hearing, Fredette offered compromise legislation that combined all four proposals but kept the PAS program intact. But only nine Democrats supported the compromise effort – six shy of the total needed for passage.
One part of welfare reform Democrats did support was an amendment to the governor’s L.D. 1822 that added “smoke shops” to the list of places where EBT cards cannot be used.
“No one wants to see funds meant for struggling families spent at smoke shops or liquor stores,” said House Speaker Mark Eves (D-North Berwick). “That’s why we are expanding the ban and calling on the LePage administration to enforce the current law.”
According to House Democrats, current law already prohibits the use of EBT cards at liquor stores, casinos, and strip clubs.
However, data provided by DHHS to The Maine Wire and multiple other media outlets contradicts Democrats’ claims about the current ban. According to that data, cash welfare was accessed as recently as last year at strip clubs in Portland (200 Riverside Street) and Bangor (190 Harlow Street). The data also shows hundreds of transactions at liquor stores in 2013, after the alleged ban would have taken effect.
If, as Eves and other Democrats have claimed, transactions at strip clubs and liquor stores are already banned, then clearly the ban is not working.
Should the proposals the Democrats supported become law, TANF recipients will still be able to access welfare cash all across the country, such as at Disney World and other amusement parks. The passed legislation also does nothing to prevent non-residents from continuing to collect benefits. But Democrats’ ostensible support for a limited welfare reform provision may help limit the damage in the November elections, as welfare is sure to be a top campaign theme.
Fredette reacted with disappoint to the rejection of his proposed compromise.
“The Democrats have proven over and over that they’re simply not interested in reforming Maine’s broken welfare system,” he said. “That’s a shame because every welfare dollar spent at a liquor store or a Las Vegas casino is a dollar stolen from a hungry child or a hardworking taxpayer. I wish every Mainer could have witnessed the floor debates on these bills because they showed just how out of touch liberal politicians really are and how far they will go to make excuses for the welfare system they have created.”
The welfare reform bills now head to the Senate.
Republicans gathered at the State House Friday to urge their Democratic colleagues to support welfare reform.
Editor, Maine Wire