When is it welfare, and when do people take advantage of and abuse the system? That is the crux of the ongoing debate before the Maine Legislature.

On the left are the Democrats, who feel welfare is a vital safety net in which there is very limited abuse of the system by recipients. On the right are the Republicans, who believe that welfare abuse in Maine is rampant and that strict measures must be enacted to curtail that abuse.

Somewhere in the middle, as usual, lies the solution. It comes as no surprise to me that Gov. Paul LePage has made welfare reform his No. 1 priority.

In the fall of 2009, while working with LePage on his campaign for governor, he laid out his views and positions for me. It was obvious that his strong opinions, gleaned by a childhood of experience in personal poverty, had enflamed his passion about this issue.

Now, he and his supporters will make it the deciding issue in his re-election bid, and it will determine the fate of many individual candidates for the House and Senate. In fact, on this single issue may rest the composition of the executive and legislative branches and the political future of the state of Maine.

When we look at what the Republicans are suggesting for welfare reform, we find that they may have a winning issue for this year’s campaigns.

The Republican reforms simply state that:

• Any able-bodied, work-ready welfare applicant should be required to perform a “work search” of three jobs before becoming eligible for cash payments.

• TANF, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, should be tied to “workfare” rather than welfare, and to provide every possible assistance in preparing recipients for meaningful employment opportunities. Republicans would expunge one of three exclusions included in the TANF rules, the one that allows a recipient to reject a job for “any good cause.”

• There should be geographic limitations on where welfare recipients can spend the assistance they receive, i.e., it should be spent whenever possible, in Maine.

• Welfare payments cannot be used to purchase liquor, cigarettes, or to bail the recipient out of jail, among other things.

It is hard to argue successfully against what appear to be common-sense regulation proposals, but the Democrats sense that this is an issue that could cause a repeat of the 2010 Republican tsunami in Maine. Therefore, they seek to frame the election as evidence of the Republican’s lack of compassion and understanding of the plight of the less fortunate among us. The Dems maintain that any evidence of welfare abuse and fraud is anecdotal and incidental.

They are going to lose on this issue, primarily because most people have seen someone they believe to be abusing the welfare system. Something does need to be done to sanitize Maine from the stigma of having become a “welfare state.”

Sensible rules, coupled with vigorous enforcement, are of course common-sense solutions not partisan politics.

The fact that we desire to see welfare fraud rooted out does not make us any less caring or compassionate for those who desperately need our help. And, we are willing to give it. We are just not willing to give it to welfare abusers.

Politics is one thing, common sense is another. In the case of Maine welfare reform, it is time for the Democrats to get on board.

LePage’s train is leaving the station on this issue without them, and if the Dems aren’t careful, the train’s destination may be another four years in the Blaine House for the controversial governor.

Local political addendum: Tonight, the Augusta City Council can end the long wait to save historic Lithgow Library. Councilors need to send to a June referendum, a single question that ingeniously combines the refinancing of a pension bond and a bond for renovation and expansion of the city’s publicly owned library. “Friends of Lithgow” have committed $3 million in private funds toward the library bond. This creative plan guarantees that there will be no annual tax increase for the bonds.

Don Roberts is a former city councilor and vice chairman of the Charter Commission in Augusta. He is a trustee of the Greater Augusta Utility District, and a representative to the Legislative Policy Committee of Maine Municipal Association.