AUGUSTA — The politics driving and opposing Gov. Paul LePage’s welfare reform proposals have fueled a prolonged debate at the State House this year, but Heidi Hart wanted to make sure that lawmakers had a name, a face and a story to accompany the rhetoric.

Hart, who was raised in poverty and an abusive home before her parents separated, became a beneficiary of the 17-year-old Parents as Scholars program, which provides benefits to low-income parents who seek two- or four-year college degrees. She’s a lawyer now, and has lifted herself out of poverty since becoming a single mother when she was 15.

LePage wants to eliminate the program as part of his welfare reform plan. Hart urged the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee on Tuesday not to take that step.

“I am just one of many who have benefited from this sensible approach to welfare reform,” said Hart, who drew loud applause when she finished her remarks.

The administration says Parents as Scholars must be eliminated to bring the state into compliance with federal work requirements for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which provides cash assistance to about 8,000 Maine families, including 12,000 children.

Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew said Maine must meet the requirements to avoid $13 million in penalties.

LePage and Mayhew say other proposals are designed to curb misuse of welfare cash benefits, and ensure that people who need assistance get it while those who shouldn’t get help don’t.

“We must move our welfare program to one that offers a helping hand up, and our scarce resources should support those who are doing all they can to move out of poverty into independent living,” Mayhew said Tuesday.

The proposals face opposition, both political and logistical.

Democrats have majorities in the House and Senate. While Democratic leaders have said they’re open to efforts to prevent misuse of benefits, they have labeled the Republican governor’s slate of bills politically motivated proposals with harmful consequences.

Republicans and the administration have countered those claims by emphasizing the need to protect the integrity of a $70 million federal program that is a lifeline for most beneficiaries.

“I know I am not alone when I say I do not believe that spending TANF money on alcohol, tobacco, gambling, lottery tickets or bail is paying for the daily necessities of children,” said Rep. Sharri MacDonald, R-Old Orchard Beach. MacDonald is the sponsor of L.D. 1822, a bill submitted by the governor to prohibit the program’s recipients from using electronic benefit transfer cards to make such purchases.

The bill sponsored by MacDonald is one of two that would restrict use of electronic benefit transfer cards. Another would prohibit Maine-issued EBT cards from being used outside the state.

Both proposals mirror efforts by several other states to ensure that cash benefits aren’t spent on items that don’t provide relief for individuals or families in need.

In January, the administration released data showing that beneficiaries used 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. Many of the establishments have ATMs for cash withdrawals.

However, the location of the transactions raises questions about misuse that is difficult to quantify and track. That’s because Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits can be withdrawn at ATMs as cash.

Tracking a cash benefit is impossible, leading critics to question the effectiveness of the governor’s proposals.

The administration has not provided projected costs or savings for its proposals. As for the savings from curbing misuse, Mayhew told lawmakers Tuesday that the proposals would have an educational and deterrent effect.

Several states have moved in a similar direction to ward off abuse of EBT cards. At least 22 states considered restrictions in 2013, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Massachusetts and Washington ban use of the cards at pawn shops and jewelry stores.

Other states have determined that costs outweigh the benefits of the reforms.

In 2012, the Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog agency, reviewed six states that passed laws to restrict use of EBT cards at certain locations, such as liquor stores or casinos. It found that transaction data collected by at least four states did not “contain information that is accurate or detailed enough” to identify locations that could be restricted. For example, the data did not contain merchant codes to show exactly what was purchased.

That was a shortcoming of the data released by the LePage administration earlier this year. It included several ATM withdrawals at bars and smoke shops, but no information about what was bought.

Rep. Terry Hayes, D-Buckfield, a co-sponsor of the two EBT bills, said the location of the transactions was enough to cause concern.

Some states have pushed for photo identification on the cards to curb misuse. The LePage administration is pursuing such an initiative, said Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s spokeswoman. Bennett said the change will be made this year and won’t require legislative approval.

Welfare reform is likely to be a subject of debate in this year’s legislative and gubernatorial elections. LePage’s challengers, independent Eliot Cutler and Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, issued statements saying the state should do everything it can to prevent misuse.

Cutler said he supports restrictions on tobacco and alcohol purchases, but he questioned whether the LePage administration could implement the reforms it is proposing and joined other critics in questioning the governor’s motives.

“The person most dependent on welfare in Maine is Paul LePage and his re-election campaign,” he said.

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

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