AUGUSTA, Maine — As promised earlier this year, Gov. Paul LePage filed four bills Friday aimed at tightening restrictions on the use of electronic benefit cards used by welfare recipients.
Democrats said certain elements of the governor’s proposals raise red flags; they urged him to instead focus his administration’s efforts on enforcement of current welfare fraud crimes.
LePage is expected to announce his welfare-reform plan Monday at the State House where Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald, along with other Republican supporters, are scheduled to gather.
The four bills submitted by the LePage administration would:
— Prevent welfare benefits through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families from being used for bail and to buy alcohol, tobacco products and lottery tickets.
— Bar Temporary Assistance for Needy Families recipients from using EBT cards to access those benefits while out of state.
— Require “job-ready” Temporary Assistance for Needy Families applicants to seek three jobs before receiving benefits.
— Remove state exemptions allowing Temporary Assistance for Needy Families recipients to bypass the federal work requirement.
Jodi Quintero, a spokeswoman for the House speaker’s office, said Friday that LePage’s plans stand in stark contrast with Democrats’ efforts to help families in need.
“Democrats support any good-faith efforts to reform our anti-poverty programs,” she said. “However, the governor has a track record of pulling the rug out from these families, rather than helping them get back on their feet again. He should prosecute fraud rather than politicize it.”
Recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families are required to show they are seeking jobs, but they don’t have to start that process before applying for benefits. Quintero said roughly one-quarter of recipients are fleeing domestic violence. Those families and others in similar crisis mode lack the time or circumstance to begin a job search before applying for assistance.
One of LePage’s proposals not highlighted by his news release Friday would eliminate the Parents as Scholars program within Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
“That’s really the key to helping people get back on their feet again,” Quintero said. “It provides the education needed to help people move out of poverty and into a job.”
Democrats will be looking with “great concern” at that proposal, she said. “That’s a red flag for us. That’s one of the most successful programs,” she said, noting Maine’s former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe — a Republican — endorsed the program when it was adopted.
In January, LePage released statistics compiled by a state agency that suggested EBT cards were being abused by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families recipients, who apparently used them at businesses where alcohol and tobacco products were sold.
But a survey of such businesses in the Lewiston and Auburn area included in the data cited by the administration said they didn’t accept EBT cards, except at ATM machines.
Critics of LePage’s release of those statistics compiled by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services noted that they represented only a small fraction — less than 1 percent — of the total number of transactions that occurred over a nearly two-year period ending in November 2013.
In a written statement on Friday, LePage said: “These [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] benefits are supposed to help vulnerable families with young children. … Instead, welfare benefits are being used for alcohol, cigarettes, lottery tickets, bail and other purchases that hardworking taxpayers should not be footing the bill for. With 6,700 job openings listed online at Maine Job Bank, [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] applicants should have no problem looking for work before asking the taxpayers for welfare benefits.”
A 2012 state law prohibits EBT cards from being used at stores where more than half of sales revenues are liquor-related. It also bars recipients from using the cards at gambling facilities and adult entertainment venues.