U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin of Maine said Monday he would be offering a bill meant to change federal law concerning Electronic Benefit Transfer cards in order to prevent them from being used in illegal drug transactions.

EBT cards, similar to a bank debit card, can be loaded with funds for both the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, and state and federal cash benefit programs. A personal identification number is needed to use the cards, but they are still frequently confiscated during drug busts in Maine.

In 2014, Matt Cashman, a supervisor with the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, told the Legislature that over an 11-month period his officers had confiscated 40 EBT cards in 25 different raids. Cashman said the MDEA discovered the cards were often traded, along with their PINs, for drugs.

Poliquin, a 2nd District Republican, is running for re-election this year and again faces Democratic challenger and former state Sen. Emily Cain, in what many political observers believe will be a tight race.

“When enacted, congressman Poliquin’s bill will bring common-sense reform to the food stamp program that will deter drug dealers from trading in EBT cards and better ensure these important benefits are there for those who truly need them,” a news release from Poliquin’s congressional office said.

Details of the proposed law changes are expected to be unveiled during a news conference at 11 a.m. Tuesday in Lewiston’s Kennedy Park.

The legislation would join dozens of bills offered by Republican lawmakers in Congress aimed at either tightening eligibility for federal benefit programs or eliminating potential abuse of those programs. While the proposal will likely see a favorable reception in the U.S. House, controlled by the Republican majority there, it faces more of an uphill fight in the U.S. Senate – where the requirement of at least 60 votes to reach a floor debate there could allow Democrats to block its passage. A likely outcome is that parts of Poliquin’s proposal would be folded into other welfare-related bills.

Poliquin’s bill comes on the heels of a Maine Department of Health and Human Services decision in May requiring a benefit recipient to meet with DHHS staff when the recipient requests more than four replacement EBT cards in a year.

“In 2015, there were more than 140 requests for replacement cards that would exceed the threshold,” a news release from the Maine DHHS said. The agency also pointed to a 2015 news report in which a DHHS official noted that in a single drug bust, authorities seized six EBT cards that had been reissued nine, 12, 13, 15, 18 and 47 times, respectively.

Among other things, Poliquin’s proposal will likely seek to give states greater flexibility in how they manage federal welfare funds and will likely support Maine’s recent rule change. A spokesman for Poliquin said Monday that the legislation does not seek to limit what foods could be purchased with SNAP funds.

Gov. Paul LePage has recently pushed the federal government to allow states to ban using the cards to purchase sugary foods and drinks. The LePage administration also put into place a pilot program that allows EBT cardholders to voluntarily have their photo on their cards, as a means of preventing fraud.

LePage this month also issued a broadside aimed at Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, who LePage claimed was not working to adequately prosecute those charged with defrauding the state’s benefit systems.

Maine EBT cards were also in the news recently for a misprinted 1-800 number that appeared on some of the cards. The number, meant to direct callers to a benefits help line, instead sent them to a phone-sex company.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

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