AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage on Monday unveiled a set of four bills that would place more restrictions on how welfare benefits can be used in the Pine Tree State.

Among the reforms LePage is proposing are adding recipients’ photographs to Electronic Benefit Transfer cards and a requirement that applicants for welfare benefits conduct a work search before becoming eligible. LePage also proposes making it illegal to use a cash-assistance EBT card for tobacco, liquor, gambling and bail. A fourth proposed bill would prohibit the use of the card outside Maine.

LePage said he didn’t oppose helping those in need but wouldn’t accept allowing the state and its taxpayers to be taken advantage of.

“All people who need help will get it from this governor,” LePage said.

He also said he has intervened on behalf of individual Mainers who seek his help during his constituent hours on Saturdays. “And we take care of things ourselves without going through a system because they are acute and they are immediate,” LePage said.

He and House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, both touched on the issue of Republicans being portrayed as hard-hearted and “waging war on the poor.”

Republicans appearing with LePage, including Fredette, said their Democratic rivals wanted to portray the GOP as waging a war on the poor.

But the portrayal is unfair and inaccurate, Fredette said, telling his own personal story of how his mother once applied for food stamps to help his family survive and the shame of that.

“She would go to other communities to buy food for the family,” Fredette said. “Republicans understand poverty, many of us have lived poverty. These bills are not aimed at hurting or discouraging or disparaging people in poverty.”

LePage said he helped members of his own family and often it wasn’t just by writing them a check.

“Everybody in their lifetime will go through a period where they hit a bump in the road and may need some help,” LePage said. “I want to be the first one in line to help, but I don’t want to be taken advantage of.”

Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald, appearing with LePage, said EBT cards have been traded for illegal drugs in his city, based on recent investigations.

Macdonald said the evidence that welfare reform is needed was apparent and that residents, the police and others working in the community could see the abuse of the welfare system on a daily basis.

“An apartment serving as a neighborhood drug store for pills, crack cocaine and heroin was raided and a search of the premises produced — you guessed, it EBT cards,” Macdonald said. “These are just a few of the instances that go on daily, not only in Lewiston, but throughout the state.”

Also appearing with LePage was Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew. Mayhew detailed the bills and what they did, noting the state had a fair amount of flexibility when it came to limiting where Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funding could be spent.

She said the bill limiting the withdrawal of TANF cash benefits from out-of-state ATMs was within the state’s rights and emphasized the need to encourage people to seek work.

“We have got to maintain our focus on the importance of employment,” Mayhew said. Mayhew also pointed to Maine’s low workforce participation rate for TANF recipients, a rate the state has been penalized for in the past. Mayhew said Maine’s workforce participation rate cost the state $13 million in federal fines, but did not detail when that occurred.

Advocates for the poor said many of LePage’s proposals would only hurt low-income Mainers, especially those who are disabled or unable to work.

Sara Gagne-Holmes, executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners, said Maine’s low participation rate in welfare-to-work training programs was due in part to the state’s large population of disabled individuals.

She also said putting a photo ID on EBT cards would create an “extra obstacle for families.”

Some who are eligible to receive benefits are unable to shop for themselves, she said.

“Having the person’s photo on the card creates complications for the store owners if you are having a care person do your shopping and that sort of thing,” Gagne-Holmes said.

She also said members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have admitted that current participation rates are outdated and need to be changed.

Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, called LePage’s proposals an “election-year gimmick that is not going to provide any real solutions for struggling families.”

He said LePage was running away from his record on job creation and said Maine had the lowest private sector job creation in the nation.

“We need leaders that are going to be focused on job creation and focused on getting people out of poverty and into the middle class,” Eves said.

He called LePage’s unveiling of the bills just three weeks before the Legislature was expected to adjourn “predictable.” LePage first announced his proposals during his State of the State address in February.

“We’ve been asking the governor’s office to get these [to us] in a timely manner so we can actually work them and feel good about the work related to these bills and again, it comes at the eleventh hour,” Eves said.

The bills will next go to the Legislature’s Health and Human Service Committee for public hearings and deliberations.

Eves said the committee would look at the bills but with a critical eye.

“What we don’t want to do is continue to play into election-year politics and talk about things that aren’t even realistic and that just play into people’s fears, misunderstandings and stereotypes of the working poor,” Eves said.

Scott Thistle

Scott Thistle is the State Politics Editor for the Lewiston Sun Journal. He has covered federal, state and local politics in Maine for nearly two decades.