AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage and his conservative allies have spent the last week touting what they say is his successful revamping of Maine’s welfare system.

But Democrats and advocates for people on public assistance counter that although the administration’s actions make for good political rhetoric heading into the 2014 election, they don’t constitute meaningful reforms

For the second consecutive week, LePage used his weekly radio address Saturday to emphasize his efforts to improve Maine’s social services programs. Last week, he highlighted a 40 percent drop in the number of people enrolled in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program since 2011. This weekend, his address focused on an increase in the number of welfare fraud instances reported to state government.

According to LePage, reports of welfare fraud and abuse went from 10 in 2010 to 45 in 2012, due largely to a new online reporting system launched by the Department of Health and Human Services in 2011.

“Our efforts are paying off,” said LePage in Saturday’s radio address, according to a transcript provided by his office. “We did this to protect Maine taxpayers and to care for our most needy. While some disabled Mainers sat on waiting lists for services, others who were capable of working collected benefits through fraud. That is wrong.”

Whether LePage’s focus on welfare reform amounts to posturing for the 2014 gubernatorial election, an expected renewal of debate about whether Maine should expand its Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act, or both, remains to be seen. But LePage’s supporters argue that progress is progress and, in this case, the governor’s efforts to reduce state spending on public assistance and break cycles of dependency are significant accomplishments.

“Our view is that it’s a huge milestone and step forward in this state,” said Brent Littlefield, LePage’s chief political adviser, who added that the administration’s recent messaging has been in response to the media “mostly ignoring” the issue.

“Paying for these programs puts pressure on people and business and puts pressure on the state’s economy,” he said. “When you have continued pressure on Maine government with see-sawing budgets back and forth with a welfare system that cannibalizes other state initiatives, it can’t continue.”

Christine Hastedt, public policy director for Maine Equal Justice Partners, said eradicating poverty costs money and that LePage’s reforms are more about cutting costs than improving programs.

“From our perspective much of what the governor has been discussing is not at all in our view anything that you could consider reform,” she said.

Vic Berardelli of Newburgh, chairman of the conservative Maine Republican Liberty Caucus, hailed LePage’s actions and said they will be remembered during the 2014 election.

“The governor is doing the right things,” he said. “Nobody’s against a safety net for people in need, but when programs become institutionalized, that’s what’s causing deficits. It’s really unfair to the people who are truly in need. There’s a difference between government compassion and institutionalizing government programs.”

A large part of the reason for the 40 percent decrease in TANF enrollments is that LePage led an effort in his 2011 biennial budget bill to impose a five-year lifetime cap on the receipt of TANF benefits. Exemptions for disability and other hardships are available.

TANF, the majority of which is funded with federal dollars, is designed to temporarily help children and their parents while the family works toward self-sufficiency. The federal law that created TANF included a five-year lifetime cap but Maine opted out of that provision until it was changed by LePage.

Hastedt said LePage tells only half the story and that any savings in the TANF program are being lost to costs in other areas, such as municipal general assistance programs.

“He implies that the big drop in the number of people receiving TANF assistance has been a good thing and has resulted in more people being employed,” she said. “We don’t at all disagree that helping people find work should be a priority, but our experience watching that piece of legislation play out is that families are much more likely to resort to general assistance, become homeless or experience some sort of other crisis.”

A joint Maine Equal Justice Partners/University of Maine study published in February shows that more than 1,500 families, including 2,700 children, lost their TANF benefits in the five months after the implementation of the lifetime cap in June 2012. It also found that an estimated 39 percent of respondents to a survey conducted as part of the study said they were on TANF due to a disability and 26 percent said they have a child or other dependent with a disability.

“I don’t think you can by any stretch say that that policy implemented by the governor was good for families,” said Hastedt.

Legislative Republicans, through House GOP spokesman David Sorensen, joined LePage last week in touting the TANF caseload reductions.

“Capping benefits hasn’t been easy with Democrats in charge in Augusta for so many years. … Nonetheless, this is something Maine needed to do to reduce dependency and curb government overspending,” Sorensen wrote in a memo to reporters.

LePage’s work in pursuing people who receive social services fraudulently has produced clear results, due in large part to a new reporting tool featured prominently on the Department of Health and Human Services’ website as well as the hiring of eight additional fraud investigators in May. Recent data from LePage’s Fraud and Abuse Task Force support the governor’s claims that referrals have increased between 2009 and 2012. During that same time period, the amount of restitution ordered in investigated cases went from $58,000 in 2009 to $176,000 in 2011, then back down to $104,000 in 2012.

Though those numbers represent a tiny percentage of the hundreds of thousands of Mainers who receive some form of public assistance, LePage argues that his increased prosecutorial efforts are serving as a deterrent on a much wider scale.

LePage also touts as successes a measure that removes the right for legal noncitizens to receive welfare benefits in Maine until they live here for six months and another measure that allows drug tests for welfare recipients who were previously convicted of drug-related felonies. The latter initiative, passed in 2011, has not been implemented because of the potential expense and the possibility that the law wouldn’t stand up in court.

Hastedt said initiatives like these are so broad that they are denying benefits to people who rightly qualify for them, such as legal foreign immigrants who are struggling to build new lives in Maine. She also said that recent LePage-led reductions to education programs such as the Parents As Scholars and Competitive Skills Scholarship programs work against the governor’s stated goal of helping Mainers move from welfare to work.

“When [Maine Equal Justice Partners] talks about welfare reform, we mean helping people get the tools they need to get out of poverty,” she said. “All of these programs cost money, but eliminating poverty is a worthwhile investment and I think that’s widely recognized in Maine.”

Mark Brewer, an associate professor of political science at the University of Maine, said he thinks the arguments levied in the past week by the GOP around welfare reform are pre-staging the 2014 elections.

“My sense is that this is something that they are floating out there as a theme that both the governor and Republicans in the Legislature are going to use as central to their re-election chances,” said Brewer. “It’s certainly an issue that they can point to as something they believe is a success and that a lot of people agree on. They’re trying to shift attention away from what most people are talking to Republicans about, which is the things the governor has been saying.”

David Farmer, a former Bangor Daily News columnist, was also a staff member for former Gov. John Baldacci and is now working for Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, LePage’s likely Democratic opponent in the 2014 gubernatorial election. He said Democrats will focus on many of these issues, just as Republicans will, but hopes that more voters see social services, including Medicaid, as a necessity in an aging and economically challenged state.

“We need to work together to make the anti-poverty programs that we have work better,” said Farmer. “We don’t achieve that by turning low-income Mainers and working families into the enemy.”

Littlefield said he agrees with Farmer on that point but that no one knows how to do it better than LePage does.

“We have someone elected who has walked in the shoes of poverty,” said Littlefield of the governor. “The long-term costs to the state for these programs is unaffordable. We have a federal government that is trillions of dollars in debt. People promise things like free health care, but there is no such thing that is free. Everything has a cost.”

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.