AUGUSTA — Republican lawmakers rallied outside the State House on Friday for their final push to enact Gov. Paul LePage’s bills calling for new restrictions and penalties for recipients of cash welfare benefits.
Meanwhile, Democrats in the Senate began crafting an amendment to balance their opposition to proposals they deem harmful to low-income Mainers with the reality that the public generally supports measures meant to curb misuse of welfare dollars.
The amendment, which could be considered in the Senate as early as Monday, could fold in elements of two proposals that were defeated in the House on Thursday, but together may have a better chance of winning Democratic support.
The effort reflects the difficult politics of welfare facing the majority party in the Legislature.
At Friday’s rally, House and Senate Republicans blasted Democrats’ resistance to proposals that they described as common-sense reform.
Rep. Sharri MacDonald, R-Old Orchard Beach, is sponsoring a bill that would prohibit recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families from using their electronic benefit transfer cards for bail, alcohol, lottery tickets or tobacco products. Beneficiaries now are prohibited from using EBT cards at gambling facilities, strip clubs, and retail establishments where 50 percent or more of the revenue is derived from liquor sales. No specific purchases are banned.
“Every welfare dollar spent on a bottle of wine is a dollar stolen from a needy child,” MacDonald said.
Some states have enacted bans similar to the one proposed by MacDonald, but the impact on misuse has been limited, according to a 2012 analysis by the Government Accountability Office, the congressional watchdog agency.
MacDonald criticized two Democratic-sponsored amendments that failed in the House on Thursday. Although she voted for both, she described them as “fraudulent” attempts to give Democratic lawmakers cover in this year’s elections.
Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, the sponsor of one of the amendments, rejected MacDonald’s characterization. He said his proposal, to support the ban on some purchases but reduce the penalties, was a good-faith attempt at compromise.
Ericka Dodge, spokeswoman for Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said Friday that Democrats were discussing a measure to combine elements of McCabe’s proposal with another proposal introduced in the House.
That proposal, sponsored by Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, effectively would have prohibited retailers from accepting EBT cards for purchases of tobacco, liquor or lottery tickets.
House Republicans decisively rejected Russell’s proposal Thursday, saying it would shift responsibility from welfare recipients to store owners.
But MacDonald, whose family owns a convenience store in Old Orchard Beach, said she believes her caucus is open to including the purchase ban and the point-of-sale enforcement if there are stiffer penalties for violations.
Also Friday, Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat, said Maine already has the legal tools to crack down on misuse of electronic benefit transfer cards.
She said the proposals before the Legislature “look (more) like campaign slogans with (bill) numbers at the top than anything of substance or merit.”
“We’re not afraid to take on any fraud cases,” she said. “No judge has ever said to us, ‘Janet, you can’t prosecute this fraud case because you don’t have the right laws.’ We don’t need any more laws. The criminal code is plenty adequate to prosecute fraud wherever it exists, whoever does it and whatever manner they do it.”
Mills criticized the LePage administration for releasing data showing out-of-state EBT transactions and alleging misuse.
She said the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees welfare benefits programs, has not referred any fraud prosecution cases related to the EBT data since her term began in 2012. She noted that it is illegal to obtain benefits from Maine while living in another state.
An analysis of the administration’s data showed that 2 percent of total EBT cash withdrawals from the start of 2011 to November of 2013 were made in states other than Maine.
Ninety-three percent of the out-of-state EBT transactions distributed food stamp benefits, which allow specific purchases such as bread and dairy products, and prohibit others such as liquor and cigarettes.
About 1.6 percent – $2.7 million – of the $164.2 million in EBT transactions distributed cash. More than 50 percent of the cash transactions were in neighboring New Hampshire.
The Senate is set to debate the governor’s welfare bills Monday. While there may be a compromise proposal to prohibit certain EBT purchases, Democrats are expected to strike down two bills that would add work-search requirements for recipients of cash benefits, while pushing a bill that would require a study to evaluate out-of-state EBT use.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: