AUGUSTA, Maine — Heidi Hart told lawmakers Tuesday that the Parents as Scholars program played an essential role in lifting her and her daughter out of poverty — and that it changed her life and the lives of hundreds of other Maine families for the better.

Hart, who works as a lawyer, urged the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee to reject a proposal by Gov. Paul LePage and Republican lawmakers to eliminate the program.

“From my earliest memories, poverty was a familiar state of affairs, and I can still recall the shame that I felt as a child because of my family’s financial struggles,” Hart said.

“Understanding the value of education and its relationship to financial security and success, I fervently hoped I could make it to college some day,” said Hart, who became a mother as a teen. “But a childhood spent in poverty can deter any hope of a better future. The need to escape from the daily misery can lead children to make risky choices that threaten their chances for success.”

She said the Parents as Scholars program allowed her to achieve her goals of earning an undergraduate degree from the University of Southern Maine. Hart added that while she is grateful for the support she received from the state administered and federally funded Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, she will return far more than she received.

“I started working full time just two days after my graduation, and I left the welfare rolls for good … almost 13 years ago,” Hart said. “As a taxpaying citizen, my lifelong contribution to this state will far outweigh the short-term investment that was made in me through the [Parents as Scholars] program. The expected course of my daughter’s life was also dramatically changed because of the wise decision that Maine made back in 1996 to create this program and provide a lifeline to people like me.”

Elimination of the program is part of a slate of bills — proposed by LePage and sponsored by Republican lawmakers — that aim to reduce abuse and fraud in Maine’s welfare programs.

Officials at the state’s Department of Health and Human Services say the program, which allows participants to collect benefits under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families while going to college full time for up to two years, fails to comply with federal work training guidelines, placing the state in jeopardy of being fined.

Instead, DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew said her agency and the Maine Department of Labor are working together to help Temporary Assistance for Needy Families recipients find training and work within the 12 months allowed under federal law. She said working with the Department of Labor, the Department of Education and local agencies, all Temporary Assistance for Needy Families recipients in Maine receive a vocational assessment to help match them with appropriate employment.

“When it comes to education, the federal government permits just one year of exemption from work participation over the course of a person’s lifetime,” Mayhew said. “I want to make it clear that we are committed to encouraging and supporting education and skills development of our [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] recipients.”

Holly Lusk, health care policy adviser for LePage’s administration, acknowledged that Maine had not been fined for falling short of federal workforce participation rates. But Lusk and Mayhew said fines for the years 2007 through 2011 could cost the state $13 million. Mayhew also said the state failed to meet federal rates for workforce participation for 2012 and 2013, which could mean more federal fines.

Other reforms proposed in the bills — which could receive a committee vote Wednesday — include new restrictions for Electronic Benefit Transfer cards and requirements that those seeking federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits apply for at least three jobs prior to being granted benefits under state law. The bills also restrict the use of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits loaded onto EBT cards to within the state of Maine, require cash withdrawals be spent on only the necessities and prohibits Temporary Assistance for Needy Families cash from being spent on alcohol, gambling, strip clubs or bail.

Mayhew said early analysis of EBT data supports the administration’s position. An 18-month review of EBT transactions showed that Temporary Assistance for Needy Families recipients spent more than $1.5 million out of state in two consecutive months, Mayhew said.

Republicans say these out-of-state transactions show abuse of Maine’s welfare programs. Democrats and advocates for low-income Mainers say that they represent a tiny fraction of all EBT transactions — and that the administration should focus as aggressively on provider fraud and abuse.

With that in mind, the committee could vote as early as Wednesday on a bill offered by by Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, that requires the state to annually report the results of investigations and prosecutions that stem from both recipient and provider-based fraud in the state’s welfare and Medicaid programs. Gattine’s measure requires an accounting of the costs to the state of the investigation along with a summary of the financial recoveries made after prosecution or settlement.

While Republicans have recently focused their sights on abuse by those receiving welfare and health care benefits, Democrats say the “big fish” that are costing the state more in fraud and abuse are health care providers and pharmaceutical makers that misbill, over bill and mislabel prescription drugs paid for with public funds.

Overpayments to care providers are frequently recovered by the state, but Gattine said Tuesday that giving the Legislature an annual update would allow lawmakers to take a “big picture” approach in guiding welfare policy and spending.

Both Democrats and Republicans have said no level of fraud should be tolerated within the state’s public benefit programs.

LePage’s two major challengers in this year’s gubernatorial race also weighed in on the Republican governor’s welfare reform proposals.

“I understand the governor’s goal is to make sure TANF dollars are used in the best way, but he’s going about it all wrong by eliminating the Parents as Scholars program and pushing the cost of General Assistance on to property taxpayers,” said Democrat Mike Michaud in a prepared statement. “Education and job training are the keys to helping many low-income parents move into the middle class, and we must stop shifting costs onto property taxpayers. State government must keep its commitments to towns and cities.”

Meanwhile, Eliot Cutler, an independent candidate for governor, said the governor should focus his energy on creating jobs. Like LePage’s Democratic rivals, Cutler said the new focus on welfare fraud was a campaign ploy.

“The person most dependent on welfare in Maine is Paul LePage and his re-election campaign,” Cutler said in a prepared statement. “As I look at the governor’s proposal, I wonder where would Paul LePage be politically if he had already fixed the welfare system like he promised to do four years ago?”

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.