AUGUSTA, Maine — Republican lawmakers and Gov. Paul LePage’s administration Monday renewed their calls for the Maine Legislature to enact a trio of bills meant to limit the use of state-issued Electronic Benefit Transfer cards.

Flanked by Republicans in favor of the bills, LePage’s Commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services Mary Mayhew said in 2013 there were 365,000 EBT transactions out of state that totaled $13.9 million. Transactions were made in all 50 states, she said.

She said LePage’s administration has been the first and the only one to look at where Maine welfare cash is being spent or withdrawn from ATMs and the results are shocking.

“Maine taxpayers are outraged with their hard-earned tax dollars being used this way — and they should be,” Mayhew said. She said working with the vendor that services Maine’s EBT cards her department determined that in 2013 more than 28,000 transactions worth about $800,000 were made in Florida alone.

Mayhew said the bulk of those withdrawals were made in the Orlando area, home to several well-known amusement parks including Disney World and Sea World.

“EBT cards are being used at places that many families in Maine can only dream of,” Mayhew said.

And while many of the transactions appear suspect, Mayhew would not say they were illegal when questioned by the press.

She noted that $9 million of the benefits spent out of state in 2013 were in neighboring New Hampshire but also said as many as 16,000 transactions took place in California while another 1,857 transactions were in Hawaii, St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. The top five cities outside of Maine for EBT card use were Orlando, the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and the Bronx, Philadelphia and Las Vegas.

Mayhew said the bills proposed by LePage and his Republican allies in the Legislature are not politically motivated despite criticisms they are.

Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, the House minority leader, also pushed the bills again Monday saying he was receiving calls daily supporting the reforms.

“We hear it all the time,” Fredette said. “This shouldn’t be a Democrat issue or a Republican issue. It’s an issue of reform versus the status quo. And it shouldn’t be an issue of being for or against the poor. Those who have never lived in poverty or been on welfare should think twice before criticizing those who have and are calling for reform.”

Besides limiting where TANF cash be used and what it can be used on LePage’s bills also include provisions that would require a person apply for at least three jobs before they apply for state welfare benefits.

Last week, on largely party-line votes, Democrats on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee changed several of the proposals being offered by Republicans into resolves directing DHHS to gather more information and to study the issue. The committee also voted to offer an “ought not to pass” recommendation on the other bills to the full Legislature.

Also appearing with Mayhew and Fredette was South Portland police Detective Sgt. Steve Webster.

Webster said Maine’s 2,600 law enforcement officers saw EBT card abuse every day. He said politicians need to start asking themselves, “what’s reasonable?”

“Is it reasonable for a drug dealer to accept an addict’s EBT card and PIN number for a rock of crack cocaine? I don’t think so,” Webster said. “How often does this transaction occur? More often than you think.”

Webster said that welfare wasn’t always going to just those who need help.

“There are many Maine residents who need assistance, yet there are also many who simply want it,” he said. “We should be able to agree that there is a difference between the two.”

Webster also said that most police departments don’t charge those found to be in possession of EBT cards that are not theirs or are suspected to have been traded for drugs with a crime. He said often law enforcement is focused on the underlying drug crime. He said he believed there were only two police departments in Maine, Lewiston and Biddeford, that actually assign staff to go after those breaking existing welfare fraud laws on the books.

Meanwhile, Democrats and advocates for the poor said they agree with prosecuting those who abuse or defraud the welfare system but also said LePage’s push really only addresses a small percent of the total transactions and the total amount the state spends on TANF benefits.

They said the bills are another attempt to “demonize the poor.”

Christine Hastedt, with Maine Equal Justice Partners, said the total federal block grant to Maine for TANF in 2013 was $78 million, matched with $40 million in state funds. She said 98 percent of all TANF benefits are spent in Maine, 1.5 percent are spent in the other New England states and only 0.5 percent is spent in other states.

She said existing state law allows the state to prosecute those who are defrauding welfare programs. “They already have the tools, the legal tools and the resources to address these problems,” Hastedt said.

Banning the use of Maine TANF cards in New Hampshire would affect the poor who live close to the border and are simply going to the nearest or most affordable place to shop, Hastedt said.

Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, a member of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee said LePage’s proposals were, “smoke and mirrors. The governor has the tools and resources to fight fraud. But he’s not doing the job.”

Gattine said the focus on suspected misuse and abuse is only meant to draw attention away from LePage’s poor performance on job creation and other major controversies within the Department of Health and Human Services under Mayhew’s tenure.

“Not only are his proposals unconstitutional and unenforceable, but they deflect attention from the real waste and mismanagement on his watch,” Gattine said.

Democrats say “chronic mismanagement” under LePage has cost the state millions. They pointed to problems with the contractors hired to broker rides for the MaineCare nonemergency rides program, the loss of $40 million in federal funding at the Riverview Psychiatric Center, the expenditure of nearly $1 million on a no-bid contract to Rhode Island consultant to study the state’s Medicaid and welfare programs and the scrutiny DHHS has faced in a document shredding scandal at the Maine Center for Disease Control.

Maine’s Democratic Attorney General Janet Mills also said Monday that, so far, none of the EBT card transactions highlighted by LePage and his administration in recent weeks have been forwarded to her office for possible prosecution.

LePage was not in attendance Monday as he was returning from his annual vacation in Jamaica, according to his staff.

BDN State House Bureau Chief Chris Cousins contributed to this report.

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.