AUGUSTA, Maine — Whether Republicans, Democrats or both are serious about reducing fraudulent spending in cash benefit programs for the poor, the discussion in Augusta has devolved into partisan finger-pointing.

Republicans say Democrats aren’t serious about cracking down on the misuse of public benefits. Democrats have countered that much of the fraud touted by Gov. Paul LePage and Republican leaders already is illegal, can be stopped by the Department of Health and Human Services, and that the reforms would affect too many of the people who legitimately are dependent on government assistance as a means of survival.

LePage has been outspoken about limiting welfare spending throughout his administration. For more than a year, he led the effort against expanding Medicaid in Maine. But in recent weeks, he and others have turned attention to a handful of bills that would cut back on what they allege is widespread, fraudulent use of Maine’s electronic benefits transfer cards.

The Department of Health and Human services puts a mix of state and federal food supplement money, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds, and, to a lesser degree, the state’s share of Social Security disability payments on the cards, which then function similar to debit cards. Recent criticism has focused on the use of Maine EBT cards in other states and to buy alcohol and tobacco.

LePage’s bills, which went to the House of Representatives for debate on Thursday, were either weakened by amendments on the House floor or rejected outright by mostly Democrats. The bills will go to the Senate for consideration next week.

On Friday, dozens of Republicans gathered outside the State House for a press conference and assailed Democrats. Rep. Sharri MacDonald, R-Old Orchard Beach, who sponsored one of LePage’s bills and works as a clerk at a convenience store, supported two compromise amendments offered by Democrats on Thursday even though she said it weakened the bills too much, particularly in the area of penalties for cash benefit scofflaws. She also said Democrats didn’t do enough to discuss their amendments with Republicans ahead of time and offered them too late in the debate.

“They’re going to go home to their constituents and say, ‘you know what, we tried to do welfare reform,’ and they’re going to be on record to do that,” said MacDonald. “This is an issue that is about reform versus the status quo. Sometimes I think the only people who oppose welfare reform are right here at the State House.”

Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, responded that despite the failure of his amendment to LD 1822, which would restrict the use of TANF cash benefits for things such as alcohol, tobacco and bail payments, he and other Democrats remain ready and willing to continue working with Republicans toward a compromise.

“My concern is always whether we’re going to have penalties that are going to affect children in the state of Maine,” he said. “These are the neediest people in the state of Maine. … If people are using these cards illegally, there’s already a means to take them away.”

LePage wasn’t at the press conference, but his staff did attend. LePage responded a couple of hours later with a written statement.

“Despite overwhelming data and firsthand accounts by well-respected law enforcement officials, liberals keep saying welfare fraud and abuse is ‘anecdotal,’” said LePage. “Mainers are rightfully outraged that their hard-earned tax dollars are being abused, and they know these liberals are out of touch with reality. Once again, they are playing politics instead of doing what’s right for the Maine people.”

At a press conference this week, LePage and Republicans again highlighted data that show in 2013, Maine-issued EBT cards were used in all 50 states. Yet less than 2 percent of Maine EBT transactions happen out of state, and less than 0.5 percent are outside New England.

Robyn Merrill, a senior policy analyst for Maine Equal Justice Partners, said a closer look at the data shows that TANF abuse — which is at the center of some of the governor’s efforts — is vastly smaller than the overall EBT fraud alleged by the administration.

For example, Merrill said her analysis of the data showed that while there were more than 1,800 EBT transactions in 2013 in Hawaii, St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, only one of those transactions involved TANF benefits.

Merrill also said that while there undoubtedly are some people using their benefits improperly, there are valid explanations for why EBT cards are used out of state. For example, according to 2012 data compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 44 percent of food supplement recipients in Maine are elderly or disabled adults who might simply be traveling with family.

“Those numbers [publicized by the LePage administration] are also counting [food supplements] and supplemental Social Security disability benefits,” said Merrill. “I think that’s incredibly deceptive when their whole argument was framed around LD 1820 and how we should be passing this bill. The bill is just about TANF benefits.”

Kevin Concannon, the undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is also a former commissioner for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services under Democratic governors. He said he views most of LePage’s recent welfare abuse bills, particularly LD 1820, which seeks to outlaw the use of Maine-issued EBT cards outside Maine, as politically motivated.

“[SNAP, the federal food supplement program,] is a federal benefit that by law is available for usage in every state,” said Concannon. “I often wonder when I read about these efforts whether they are simply for political gain.”

Concannon said the federal government nearly wiped out food supplement abuse when it did away with actual food stamps in favor of EBT cards. Abuse went from up to 5 percent a year to around 1 percent.

“It gave us much more ability to track the sale of benefits,” said Concannon. “We’re better able to catch them when it occurs because of data mining efforts as well as undercover agents.”

Maine is not the only state considering changes to cash benefits distribution. Terry Smith, who directs the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services Division of Family Assistance, said he and others have been watching the debate in Maine closely, partially because the LePage administration this week highlighted that the vast majority of out-of-state EBT card use was in New Hampshire. Smith said there is a bill proposed in New Hampshire that would restrict out-of-state EBT transactions and others that would limit the use of public benefits for things such as alcohol, tobacco, firearms and tattoos.

“There’s a lot to the debate,” said Smith. “That’s not to say it’s not the right thing to do, only that the debate is a much more complicated and nuanced one than people may at first perceive. … We look forward here to see how it plays out in Maine.”

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.