AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Senate endorsed a bill on Thursday that would ban the purchase of lottery tickets, alcohol, tobacco and other items with cash assistance, but its fate is uncertain amid a partisan conflict over penalties.
The ban on purchases under Maine’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program is supported by majorities in both parties. It’s a longtime priority of Gov. Paul LePage’s administration and a key piece of a Democratic welfare reform agenda released this year.
But a debate around penalties could kill it: Republicans want violators to face existing penalties for different types of violations under the TANF program, while Democrats want to create a more lenient penalty structure.
The Republican version passed the Senate on Thursday in a 21-14 vote, gaining support from all Republicans and one Democrat, Sen. John Patrick of Rumford. It faces more votes in the Senate and the Democrat-led House, where that party’s version of the bill will be favored.
Assistant Senate Majority Leader Andre Cushing, R-Newport, said the Republican version aims to “cut down the hammock for those who are using this in a way that is inappropriate.”
The Republican bill would hold those who intentionally make illegal purchases under the law to existing penalties for violations including making false statements on forms. A first violation is a one-year suspension, the second is two years, and the third is a lifetime ban.
Democrats have said that is too harsh for a violation as small as buying a pack of cigarettes. In their version, the penalty for a first violation would be restitution, the second would be a maximum three-month suspension, and it would be a six-month maximum for subsequent violations.
Advocates of the bill have said the department would still have to prove an intentional violation to suspend people from the program. However, Sen. Chris Johnson, D-Somerville, said on the floor that the Republican version would be “visiting the sins of the father … upon the children.”
“It’s far better to achieve the aims of this program, which is to make sure the children have the opportunity to be brought up in a household that adequately supports them,” he said.