AUGUSTA, Maine — In an end-of-session compromise, a pair of Lewiston-Auburn state senators were able to advance legislation that tightens oversight and increases penalties for welfare recipients who are caught abusing the system.

The measure was first offered by Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, and aims to limit purchases made with Electronic Benefit Transfer cards that are loaded with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families funds.

Before Friday, it appeared all but dead.

“This bill finally gives Mainers what they’ve wanted: meaningful welfare reform the focuses assistance on helping families get out of poverty while ensuring accountability at the cash register,” Libby said. “Taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be used to buy these sorts of products, and Mainers have been surprised to know these kinds of purchases weren’t prohibited before.”

Republicans wanted those caught using an EBT card and TANF funds to purchase alcohol, cigarettes or scratch tickets to lose benefits for up to a year on the first offense. But Democrats said that penalty was too stiff and a single mistake by a TANF recipient could result in an entire family losing as much as $8,000 in benefits in a year.

Republicans also were asking for a lifetime benefit ban for a person who repeatedly abused the system.

Libby said the compromise reached took a less severe approach to penalties but did include a suspension of benefits for a first-time offender and a requirement that any illegal purchases made with TANF funds would have to be paid back to the state.

Libby and Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, the Senate chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, were able to get their respective caucuses as well as those in the House to agree to tighten the penalties beyond a warning letter for the first offense.

“I’m glad that the Legislature is finally responding to what Maine people have known for a long time and have been demanding for years, and [it’s] that we should not allow welfare dollars to be spent to purchase alcohol, cigarettes and lottery tickets for other things that are not appropriate uses for Maine taxpayer dollars,” Brakey said. “Every dollar that’s abused, that’s not used for the purpose it was intended for within the welfare program is a dollar taken away from those that really need it. The families and kids that need the help.”

Brakey said the bill still didn’t go as far as many conservatives would like, but it was a big step in the right directions. He and other Republican lawmakers said they believed Gov. Paul LePage would support the change.

Libby’s original bill also sought to require businesses to program their credit and debit card readers to reject prohibited TANF purchases at the point of sale and held merchants equally responsible for allowing prohibited products to be purchased with TANF funds.

Much like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which also are loaded onto EBT cards, TANF recipients would be unable to use their EBT cards to purchase a wide range of prohibited items.

But in testimony on the proposal, grocers and other retailers said programming costs could be prohibitive for them. It was an argument that mostly fell on deaf ears with Democrats and Republicans, who said stores already were programming their system for SNAP and the cost to program them for TANF, usually loaded on the same EBT card, shouldn’t be that costly.

The compromise measure that appeared poised to pass Friday was the result of more than 16 months of negotiations between Libby, LePage and Republican lawmakers including Brakey.

The bill, as it was moving toward votes in both bodies of the Legislature on Friday, includes several key changes including:

— An immediate ban on the use of welfare cash to pay for tobacco, liquor, gambling materials, lottery tickets, bail, firearms, vacations, adult entertainment and tattoos.

— The use technology to block the use of EBT cards to purchase prohibited items with existing point-of-sale technology, following a study involving retailers and the Department of Health and Human Services.

— New penalties including restitution for intentional violations, ranging from up to three months of suspended benefits on the first offense and up to 24 months of suspended benefits on third and subsequent offenses.

The measure also calls for hiring an additional welfare fraud investigator in the Maine attorney general’s office.

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.