AUGUSTA –– An analysis of welfare recipients’ electronic benefit transfer card transactions released by the LePage administration shows that fewer than 2 percent of cash withdrawals were made outside Maine over a three-year period, including four in Hawaii and one in the Virgin Islands.

Despite numbers so small, Gov. Paul LePage and his health and human services commissioner have highlighted cash transactions made in travel destinations to raise questions about misuse of the benefits and advance welfare reform proposals.

The bills, including one that would prohibit out-of-state use of EBT cards for cash benefits through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, could get preliminary votes in the Legislature on Thursday.

In January and again Monday, the administration released data showing millions of dollars in out-of-state EBT transactions. Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew addressed reporters alongside postcards of far-flung destinations, urging the Legislature to support the prohibition on out-of-state cash transactions. She said $14 million in EBT transactions were made out of state in 2013.

However, the figures presented reflect all EBT transactions, not just for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, overstating and complicating the potential misuse that the administration is targeting.

A LOOK AT THE TRANSACTIONS

EBT cards dispense an array of benefits, depending on a card holder’s eligibility.

The cards can include food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which allows specific purchases such as bread and dairy products, and prohibits others such as liquor and cigarettes.

The cards also can dispense cash through a refugee assistance program and a work training program.

According to newly refined data requested by the Portland Press Herald, 93 percent of the $14 million in out-of-state EBT spending last year was for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, commonly known as food stamps.

About 1.6 percent of the $164.2 million distributed in all EBT transactions from the start of 2011 to November of 2013 was for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits withdrawn out of state.

Leading the list of states in those transactions was neighboring New Hampshire, which accounted for 50 percent. Massachusetts was second at 13 percent of the cash transactions, followed by Florida at 7 percent and New York at 3 percent.

In 2013, just one Temporary Assistance for Needy Families withdrawal was among the 1,857 EBT transactions made in Hawaii, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Of the 16,000 EBT transactions in California last year, 30 were for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. And there were 318 TANF withdrawals among the 28,000 transactions in Florida.

With the original data release in January, the LePage administration highlighted transactions at Disney World and in Las Vegas and the Virgin Islands. There were EBT transactions in those places, but few were to withdraw cash and spend without restrictions.

REFORM NEEDED, OR BID TO MISLEAD?

EBT fraud is not confined to cash transactions. Last year, Kevin Concannon, a former Maine DHHS commissioner who is now the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, said that food stamp fraud totals about $750 million a year.

However, the bills under consideration by the Legislature deal only with cash benefits through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Many of the transactions in New Hampshire were made at banks, ATMs and convenience stores, according to the DHHS database. Many others were at grocery stores and food retailers registered to accept food stamps, according to a database published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program.

The numbers add new context to the policy debate over L.D. 1820, the bill to prohibit out-of-state use of EBT cards for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The proposal is emerging as the most contentious of the governor’s welfare proposals.

The bills have been the source of contention since they were introduced by the administration in March.

The governor and Republicans say the bills are needed to curb what they describe as rampant misuse and ensure that public assistance goes to the truly needy. Democrats say the proposals are designed to drive LePage’s re-election bid and that the administration isn’t enforcing current laws to prevent misuse.

Mayhew, the health and human services commissioner, said the “acceptable amount of welfare abuse is zero.”

“Maine taxpayers are outraged with their hard-earned tax dollars being used this way,” she said Monday during a news conference at the State House. “They should be. The best way to ensure that our limited tax dollars are helping poor people who live in Maine is to eliminate the ability to use EBT cards out of state. If Mainers are eligible for this benefit, spending should occur within Maine, not fuel other states’ economies.”

Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, said the administration is misleading the public by portraying all EBT transactions at travel destinations as abuse. While the administration has emphasized exotic locales to bolster its position, Gattine said, few of the transactions were to obtain cash.

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

smistler@pressherald.com

Twitter: @stevemistler