As I dig deeper into the recent supplemental and biennial budget proposals from Governor Janet Mills, the truth about her so-called “no drama” budget is coming to light. For the next biennium beginning this July, Mills relies on various accounting gimmicks in order to balance her budget, growing spending as the public reels from the worst economic year since 2009. The budget tinkers with tax rates on certain communications and digital media services, gambles on a more than triple public employee attrition rate and shifts staff funding to short-term federal sources.
But, given the crafty ways the governor gets to propose spending more each year, the administration overlooks potentially large liabilities in how the state disburses welfare benefits; the consequences of which the state must handle this year.
At 16.8%, Maine has the third-highest rate of citizens who receive benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Also known as food stamps, SNAP provides funds for groceries to families who qualify. A household of four in Maine with annual income under $48,470 would receive more than $8,000 per year under the most recent federal spending bill signed by former President Trump in December 2020.
What should be concerning to taxpayers, though, is that the state reported a 2019 SNAP error rate of more than 19%, the second-highest rate in the country. This means that nearly one-in-five SNAP payments were wrong, the vast majority being overpayments. Because of the high error rate, Mills must allocate $1.3 million in this fiscal year’s supplemental budget to pay sanctions from the federal government.
To be clear, these enhanced benefits were not a result of the coronavirus pandemic. These mistakes were made in 2019, before anyone in Maine had even heard of COVID-19.
The national and New England averages for SNAP error rates are between 7% and 8%. This session, legislators and the governor alike should champion an audit of the SNAP program to better understand why Maine performs so poorly, and potentially avoid more costly mistakes in the future.
State benefits should be available to all those who truly need them. But, by allowing fraud and waste to run rampant in welfare programs like SNAP, state leaders threaten their sustainability. This and the next budget cycle should be when the government tightens its belt. The governor and legislative leaders should pursue every avenue to avoid needless and wasteful spending as they demand more from Maine taxpayers.