AUGUSTA, Maine — In a series of party-line votes Thursday, the Maine House sent a slate of bills aimed at changing or reforming Maine’s welfare system and how state-issued Electronic Benefit Transfer cards could be used to the Senate.

Four bills, offered by Republican Gov. Paul LePage, were either watered down into legislative resolves or defeated outright by majority Democrats.

At least one of the bills was passed as a legislative resolve, directing the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to use existing law and policy to go more vigorously after welfare cheats and EBT card misuse and abuse.

“The chief executive has the tools and resources to fight fraud but he has not been doing the job,” state Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, the House chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, said while describing one of the altered bills.

Among the bills offered by LePage and Republicans was one requiring welfare applicants to show they had applied for at least three jobs before seeking public benefits. Another would have cut off out-of-state use of EBT cards and another made illegal the use of any EBT card cash to buy alcohol, tobacco, lottery tickets or to pay for bail. The bills all were directed at safeguarding the use of state and federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families funds.

“The department does have some tools, but they don’t have one of the most important tools, they do not have the tool of prohibition,” state Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, said during one of several floor debates on the bills “This is to benefit the families with children, needy families with children. If there is anybody in this room who feels as though we should not prohibit money that is intended to be used for children to be used to purchase tobacco products, alcohol products, lottery tickets or a ticket out of jail — I don’t know who it is.”

Beyond arguing state law already prohibited many of the things LePage wanted to crack down on, including using EBT money out-of-state for extended periods of time, Democrats said some of the provisions being proposed would likely be unconstitutional.

Democrats also fought back against a recent campaign by Republicans and the administration that highlighted the many out-of-state places that EBT cash had been withdrawn or used to purchase goods over the last three years. Republicans have pointed to data that show the cards have been used in all 50 states, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

But state Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbroook, said when you looked more closely at the data, including the data for 2013, it shows reforms put in place just last year were having an impact on limiting abuse. He also said the alleged abuse DHHS and LePage were pointing to was only a tiny fraction of all the transactions made on state-issued EBT cards.

“The vast majority of TANF transactions occurred in Maine, but of the small number that occurred out of state, the vast majority of those occurred in New Hampshire,” Gattine said. “The department may claim there are thousands of EBT card transactions in far-flung locations, but the vast majority of those transactions are for food assistance and not for TANF.”

Gattine said the administration also knows that federal law prohibits cutting off the use of food stamp benefits that are loaded onto state EBT cards.

While defeating some of LePage’s proposals, Democrats also approved a bill, LD 1829, offered by Gattine that creates a new reporting system meant to track, deter and prevent both individual and health care provider fraud in DHHS programs, including TANF and MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid system.

Data provided to the Sun Journal by the Office of the Maine Attorney General shows that over the past three years, Maine judges have ordered individuals who have defrauded benefit programs to repay $488,303. That’s an annual average of $162,767.

On the health care provider side, the state has seen restitution set at $18.7 million over the past four years, an annual average of $4.6 million.

Both Democrats and Republicans have said the state shouldn’t tolerate any fraud in its public welfare programs, but Democrats are quick to note the provider side figures are much more significant.

“This bill would shine a light on fraud and increase integrity in the programs across the department,” Gattine said. “We are talking about valuable state resources. We must make sure that they, and the taxpayer dollars that support them, are used wisely.”

While Democrats hailed the bills that were approved as important steps to help curtail fraud and abuse in the system, Republicans said the bills were little more than an effort “to save face in an election year.”

State Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, the House minority leader, said Republican efforts were aimed at true reforms.

“It’s about fundamentally reforming our welfare system so that taxpayers are no longer taken advantage of and the truly needy get the help they need,” Fredette said.

He noted that penalties in the Republican measures included cutting people off from TANF benefits after the third time they were caught misusing them. He said Democrats only suspended benefits for six months under their harshest penalty.

He and other Republicans also have tried to counter Democrats who have suggested conservatives are “waging a war on” or are trying to “demonize” welfare recipients as a way of distracting voters in an election year.

State Rep. Alexander Willette, R-Mapleton, the assistant minority leader in the House, told reporters Thursday Republicans were looking for a way to break the “intergenerational cycle of welfare dependency.”

But Democrats were quick to note in floor speeches and press releases that 92 percent of the 8,000 families in Maine enrolled in the TANF program are headed by women, many of them single mothers and others victims of domestic violence.

Among the bills Democrats defeated was one that would have eliminated Maine’s Parents as Scholars Program, which allows some seeking a 2-year or 4-year college degree to receive TANF benefits for up to two years.

Federal law allows up to one year of benefits and Republicans argue Maine faces up to $13 million in federal sanctions for not following the federal rules on that program.

But Democrats shot back, saying education was the key to moving Maine’s poor from welfare to work.

“Welfare reform,” said state Rep. Joshua Plante, D-Berwick. “It’s interesting we call it reform when all we are doing is making it more difficult for those who already do not have enough on their plates.”

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.