Many bills met their death in a divided 127th Legislature. But lawmakers from both parties were able to come together in at least one area: prohibiting tobacco, alcohol, lottery ticket, porn magazine, tattoo and firearm purchases using state-issued EBT cards.
News releases from lawmakers in both parties hailed passage of the legislation late Friday night as the Legislature rushed to wrap up business for the session.
“House Republicans applaud passage of substantial welfare reform,” read one release. “Senate reaches deal for welfare accountability at the cash register,” read a news release from the Senate Democratic office. “Maine Senate passes welfare reform,” Senate Republicans declared in their announcement.
The more accurate assessment of what happened? Republicans won a victory they had long been pressing for, while Democrats gave in.
Democrats forfeited all the leverage they had to negotiate a welfare package that could have actually made a difference for the low-income families who depend on state assistance. They gave in to the idea that “welfare reform” is punitive in nature, when they should have insisted that any “welfare reform” include constructive policy to help people escape poverty.
The purchase prohibition will apply to the approximately 5,200 families who receive help through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Those low-income families receive a small cash allowance each month that’s loaded onto their EBT cards. The maximum cash benefit is $485 per month for a single-parent, two-child family. To qualify, the household can’t earn more than $12,276 per year — less than 61 percent of the federal poverty level. With inflation taken into account, the maximum TANF benefit today is worth almost 24 percent less than the maximum benefit in 1996.
Under the legislation passed Friday, a TANF recipient could lose benefits for three months following the first prohibited purchase, for a year following the second and for two years following the third.
Republicans consider it a meaningful victory to have finally passed a measure banning specific purchases with a Maine-issued EBT card. When Republican leaders discuss “welfare reform,” they speak of little more than cutting back on exaggerated amounts of fraudulent purchases, instituting drug tests and work search requirements, and penalizing recipients who abuse taxpayer dollars.
But a family with a desperately low income is not helped by purchase bans and penalties.
Democrats had a chance this legislative session to focus the debate on constructive changes to Maine’s TANF program. A bill sponsored by Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, would have subsidized job-training opportunities for TANF recipients, expanded the Parents as Scholars program to allow more low-income parents to seek college degrees, and provided more TANF families with vouchers to make housing more affordable. But Democrats sank their chances of enacting that legislation because another Democrat, Sen. Nate Libby of Lewiston, proposed the product ban legislation, and Democratic leaders paired the two into a welfare reform package.
Instead of using the product ban to gain Republican support for meaningful changes, Democratic leaders essentially gave up. They failed to gain any Republican support for Gattine’s proposals, while they gave the GOP most of what it wanted in the form of the product ban. Democrats ensured the product ban’s enactment, and they ensured the death of anything constructive.
The product ban passed unanimously in the Maine Senate, with the support of all Senate Democrats. In the House, 37 Democrats and one independent opposed the measure, but it still passed by a veto-proof margin.
Gattine’s bill, lacking any Republican support, died.
In the end, Maine’s poorest families have access to a mediocre assistance program at best without any hope of it strengthening. Both of the state’s political parties, meanwhile, have an easy, but empty, political line to sell this fall about taking a stand against the mere perception that there’s widespread abuse of Maine’s assistance programs.