Gov. Paul LePage on Wednesday railed against Democratic legislators’ refusal last week to adopt a package of reforms to public assistance programs, and made another public plea for state leaders to address abuse and fraud in the state’s welfare programs.

The governor’s office also announced a new hotline for law enforcement officers to directly connect with investigators at the Department of Health and Human Services when people who are arrested are found in possession of an Electronic Benefits Transfer card that is not their own.

“How many cards do we have to confiscate before (EBT card fraud) becomes a fact?” Le- Page asked, in a news conference at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. He stood in front of enlarged photographs of nearly 100 EBT cards confiscated at Androscoggin County Jail from arrestees whose names did not match those on the card, and of the results of drug busts where EBT cards were confiscated.

“The point is, there is a mechanism being used in the EBT cards that are paying for drugs. And even beyond that, that is actually a symptom of the real problem. The real problem is that we in the state of Maine allow people to use EBT cards as debit cards. And we have no restrictions,” LePage said.

He said the more than $14 million spent out of state with EBT cards could better serve Mainers by paying to continue nursing home care.

About $162 million in benefits was distributed through EBT card transactions from January 2011 through mid-November 2013, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Ninety-three percent of the out-of-state EBT transactions distributed food stamp benefits under the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which allows specific purchases such as bread and dairy products, and prohibits others such as liquor and cigarettes.

EBT cards can also be used to access cash benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, and about 2 percent of the cash transactions made under TANF occurred out of state, the DHHS data shows.

LePage’s package of reforms, which were mostly rejected by majority Democrats in the Legislature, would have placed limits on out-of-state cash withdrawals administered through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, placed more stringent work requirements on benefit recipients and outlawed the use of the cash benefits for alcohol, tobacco, lottery tickets and bail.

The Legislature moved forward with a highly modified version of one of the provisions, and added smoke shops to the small list of establishments where EBT cards are not accepted. The other types are liquor stores, strip clubs and places where more than 50 percent of revenue is derived from the sale of alcohol.

LePage reiterated the need to maintain stiff penalties for benefit recipients who are found to have abused the system.

“This is my position and I will deal with nothing short of this. First offense, you lose EBT for a year, second offense, three years, third offense, life,” he said, describing the current rules. “Three strikes and you’re out. “

Staff Writer Matt Byrne can be reached at 791-6303, or at:

mbyrne@pressherald.com

Twitter: MattByrnePPH