AUGUSTA –– Gov. Paul LePage rolled out a series of welfare reform bills Monday that would restrict the use of electronic benefits cards and impose new job-search requirements on Mainers who apply for assistance.

LePage introduced the proposals during a news conference at the State House, near a poster depicting a mother and two children alongside a young mustachioed man smoking a cigarette. It said, “Who’s the priority?”

The governor said his proposals would help ensure that people who need help get it, while preventing abuse. “We all want the same things from our welfare system,” he said. “I prefer education and ‘tough love.’ ”

The governor and Republican co-sponsors of the bills sought to blunt criticism from Democrats, who described the proposals as election-year bills that vilify the poor. Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, the House minority leader, urged Democrats to join Republicans in supporting the bills.

“Stop attacking our motives and listen to what we have to say,” Fredette said.

Democrats are skeptical of several of the proposals and oppose the governor’s plan to eliminate Parents As Scholars, a job-training program for low-income parents who pursue two- or four-year college degrees.

The proposal was not highlighted in the governor’s news conference, and Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew sidestepped questions about the measure.

“It’s a mistake to eliminate job training programs at a time when our state has one of the worst job growth records in the country,” said House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick.

Eves described the proposals as politically motivated, not helping the needy.

The bills follow increased emphasis on welfare reform by the governor and Republicans, who are expected to make the issue a key component of this year’s campaign platforms. LePage focused on welfare reform during his successful run for governor in 2010.

The governor’s proposals include several measures to limit the use of electronic benefit cards in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. The TANF program provides cash benefits to recipients, who can use ATMs to withdraw funds. The restrictions would prevent the use of EBT cards to pay for bail, alcohol, lottery tickets and tobacco products, and bar recipients from using the cards to access benefits at ATMs while out of state.

In January, the administration released data showing that beneficiaries used the EBT cards in Maine to make more than 3,000 transactions at smoke shops and 650 transactions at bars, pubs or strip clubs from January 2011 through Nov. 15, 2013.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which administers the program, said the state doesn’t know what was actually purchased with the cards. Many of the establishments offer ATMs for cash withdrawals.

Past efforts to restrict EBT transactions have encountered administrative and cost obstacles. LePage acknowledged that the proposals would require vendor participation and that it would cost money. The administration did not assign a cost to the proposal. “Nothing in life is free,” he said.

Eves said Democrats “will support any good-faith effort to strengthen our anti-poverty programs and root out fraud or abuse,” but eliminating the Parents As Scholars program isn’t one of them.

“We need leaders who are focused on getting people back to work, not pulling the rug out from underneath them,” he said.

The Parents As Scholars program operates within Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, offering cash assistance to low-income parents who attend college. The assistance, limited to 60 months, provides capped reimbursement for books and other expenses, but not tuition.

According to data from the DHHS, there were 237 Parents As Scholars recipients in February, among the 7,396 Temporary Assistance for Needy Families cases.

Sara Gagné-Holmes, director of Maine Equal Justice Partners, an advocacy group for the poor, said restricting out-of-state use of EBT cards raises constitutional issues concerning people’s right to travel.

She said the proposal also ignores the circumstances in which a recipient may need to travel, such as a migrant worker whose family lives in another state.

The bill sponsored by Fredette to impose new job-search requirements has counterparts in at least 19 other states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Critics say such requirements have reduced Temporary Assistance for Needy Families caseloads but there is scant evidence that the requirements have helped people find work.

Currently, welfare recipients must show after they’ve been approved for benefits that they’re looking for work. Fredette’s bill would require applicants to show that they have applied for at least three jobs before they could qualify for cash assistance.

Pennsylvania passed such a law in 2012 under the direction of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. In September, the state’s Department of Public Welfare reported a spike in denials for welfare cash benefits, from a decades-long average of about 50 percent to a high of 81 percent in February.

In 2013, eight of every 10 applicants were denied benefits, according to a review by the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Federal data shows state agencies approved 54.8 percent of temporary assistance applications nationally in 2000. By 2011, the national approval rate declined to 44.1 percent, at a time when many states were adopting upfront work search laws.

All of LePage’s proposals will receive a public hearing Tuesday. The Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee will hold a work session on all of them Wednesday, indicating that the Democratic-led Legislature may fast-track the bills and oppose them on party-line votes.

U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, who is running against LePage as a Democrat in the November gubernatorial election, issued a statement Monday night reacting to the governor’s proposal.

“It’s critical that we focus on making Maine’s anti-poverty programs effective and efficient, with the goal of moving people quickly into the workforce. We also can’t tolerate any level of fraud. Money spent on things like alcohol is money that should be spent to help parents living in poverty and their children,” Michaud said.

“I understand the governor’s goal is to make sure TANF dollars are used in the best way, but he is going about it all wrong by eliminating the Parents as Scholars program and pushing the cost of General Assistance onto property taxpayers. Education and job training are the keys to helping many low-income parents move into the middle class, and we must stop shifting costs onto property taxpayers.”

Michaud said that if elected, he will reform assistance programs to make them more effective, with the goal of reducing poverty by creating a tiered benefits program to move people into good-paying jobs through education, quality child care and career support.

“Our goal can’t be to attack low-income families and turn them into the enemy. It must be to reduce poverty and strengthen the middle class,” Michaud said.

A spokeswoman for independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler was unable to reach the candidate Monday night for a reaction to LePage’s welfare proposals.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com

Twitter: @stevemistler