AUGUSTA – What started out Tuesday as an opportunity to find compromise on welfare reform devolved into yet another partisan battle in the Maine House of Representatives.
The squabbling between Democrats and Republicans dominated about three hours of the afternoon session and may have killed the only chance the two sides have at passing incremental reform this year.
After an at-times fiery debate, the Democratic-led House voted 72-70 to insist on its version of a bill that Republicans said didn’t do enough. That put the House in non-concurrence with a Senate-backed bill that narrowly passed on Monday.
If the two sides cannot come together, which now seems likely, the measure will die between the two chambers.
“This is a sad day for the taxpayers of Maine and for anybody who believes reaching a compromise should be a goal in government,” said House Republican leader Kenneth Fredette of Newport. “We Republicans tried our best to advance a reasonable welfare reform bill that a majority could agree upon.”
Democrats accused Republicans of a publicity stunt by adding last-minute changes to the Senate compromise bill, which they said further ruined the chances of a deal.
“We all agree that funds meant for struggling families should not be used to purchase cigarettes or beer,” said House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick. “The governor’s bill has never been about these families or cigarettes or beer. It’s a last-ditch effort to score political points at a time when the governor ranks 49th in the country for job growth.”
L.D. 1822, a bill put forth by Gov. Paul LePage, would prohibit certain welfare recipients from using electronic benefit transfer cards for tobacco products, alcohol, lottery tickets or bail. It also would prohibit retailers from accepting EBT cards for those items and set penalties for anyone found using EBT cards inappropriately.
The Senate on Monday passed an amended version designed to garner Democratic support. But some Senate Republicans said the penalties were not strong enough, particularly the language that allows first-time offenders to get off with a warning only.
That opposition spilled over into Tuesday’s House debate.
Rep. Sharri MacDonald, R-Old Orchard Beach, attempted to introduce a last-minute amendment that would have made a couple of minor changes to the Senate bill, most notably creating a 15-day suspension of benefits for first-time offenses.
Democrats, however, did not allow MacDonald’s amendment to make it to the floor for debate, even though some Democratic members argued that it should be heard.
“I’m extremely disappointed that my colleagues across the aisle wouldn’t support this compromise welfare reform,” said MacDonald. “Worse yet, they didn’t even want to talk about it. I have received an outpouring of support from my constituents and neighbors, however, and will continue to push for this commonsense welfare reform.”
The failure to hear the amendment prompted a lengthy back-and-forth between House members that mirrored the same discussion that has echoed through the State House halls for weeks: Democrats accusing LePage and Republicans of demonizing welfare recipients for political gain; Republicans insisting that welfare fraud and abuse are rampant and need to be addressed.
The version of the bill that passed narrowly in Senate on Monday was an effort by Democrats in the chamber to compromise – a sign, they acknowledged, that they might be losing the issue with potential voters.
“It’s funny, for all of the indignation that you hear in here about people on welfare, you don’t hear the same indignation about corporate welfare,” said Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash.
Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or: