AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine House and Senate on Wednesday gave initial approval to a bill that would tighten eligibility requirements for unemployment benefits in an effort to combat fraud.

LD 1725, sponsored by Sen. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston, makes a number of changes to how the state distributes benefits for those who are unemployed.

First, it identifies consequences for unemployment fraud and misrepresentation to align the Employment Security Law with the Maine Criminal Code and creates a “three strikes and you’re out” clause for repeated fraudulent claims.

It also decreases to 10 weeks the amount of time someone can receive benefits while looking for a job that fits their comparable skill and wage.

Finally, it also eliminates a provision that allows recipients to collect benefits while they are receiving any unused vacation pay.

That final piece was amended Wednesday on the Senate floor to “forgive” the first four weeks of earned vacation pay to reward good workers and employers. That means a worker would receive up to four weeks paid vacation up front and still get to collect unemployment.

“Today we have taken important action to strengthen our unemployment laws, reduce fraud that affects all of us and provide support services for those seeking to return to work. This action seeks to more effectively balance all interests, and brings Maine closer to the mainstream,” Rector said.

Although Rector sponsored the bill, it originated from the governor’s office. Gov. Paul LePage has pledged to stamp out fraud in a variety of areas during his administration, including in unemployment benefits.

Many Democrats see LD 1725 as further victimizing those who are out of work.

“I don’t know why we continue to go after our workers the way we do,” said Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford.

“Laid-off workers are already struggling to make ends meet,” added Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash. “Workers not only count on but need their earned benefits, like vacation time, to get by. We should be helping Maine workers stay afloat, not taking money out of their pockets during a time of transition.”

Jackson called the measure “unfair and arbitrary” because laid-off workers would be treated differently depending on whether or not they took vacation prior to being laid off. He also said the governor pitched this bill as an “anti-fraud” bill but Maine ranks as the fifth lowest in the nation for fraud occurrences.

Rector said Maine is fortunate to have a very low fraud rate and a solvent and well-run program and he said this bill only strengthens that.

The bill passed along strict party lines in the Labor Committee last month, setting the stage for partisan debate in the House and Senate.

The Senate voted 18-16 to accept the majority report of the bill, with all Democrats voting against it.

The House vote late Wednesday afternoon was close as well, 75-71, and also split along party lines.

“This is a bill seeking to solve a nonexistent problem,” said Rep. Paul Gilbert, D-Jay.

Rep. Dale Crafts, R-Lisbon, however said the bill helps small businesses that already have enough to worry about without having to deal with bogus unemployment claims.

LD 1725 still requires additional votes in the House and Senate.

Follow BDN reporter Eric Russell on Twitter @BDNPolitics.