The federal government on Thursday announced new proposed rules that would give states more power to combat food stamp fraud — something one central Maine lawmaker attempted, but couldn’t because of federal rules, during the legislative session.

State Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, sponsored L.D. 1812, which would have required food stamp recipients to produce photo identification when using their electronic benefit transfer cards. But even with the support of the Department of Health and Human Services and the governor’s office, the bill failed to pass in original form.

Harvell changed it into legislative resolve, requesting a waiver from the federal government to change state rules.

John Martins, spokesman for DHHS, said the department is required to submit an application by Oct. 1 to the federal government for a waiver to change the rules in Maine to require photo ID for the use of the benefit cards. The state is also required to continue to develop strategies to combat fraud and to report on the success of the strategies by Dec. 1.

“On the whole, whether it is food supplement benefits or benefits in other welfare programs, we are committed to reducing fraud and abuse,” Martins said.

The U.S. Agriculture Department said Thursday it is proposing new rules that would allow states to demand formal explanations from people who seek replacement benefit cards more than three times a year, and deny them further cards if they don’t comply.

Harvell said the announcement gives him some hope that states such as Maine might be granted waivers, but “I’m not overly optimistic about it.”

Food stamp fraud costs taxpayers about $750 million a year, or 1 percent of the $75 billion program that makes up the bulk of the department’s total budget for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Associated Press reported.

Martins also cites the 1 percent figure in estimating how much food stamp fraud costs the $376 million-a-year state program.

“Some people think it’s even higher,” Harvell said. “Even if it’s only 1 percent, that’s over $3 million, and how much did we just cut out of the supplemental budget?”

Harvell said he first proposed the law because he knew “four or five people who openly bragged about buying EBT cards for 50 cents on the dollar and using them, and these people are making $40,000 to $50,000 a year.”

As of last September, 250,000 Mainers received an average of $130 a month in food stamps. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, in the last 12 years, the state’s participation rate in the program has grown by 150 percent.

Last year, Maine had 1,564 investigations in the food supplement program, Martins said. Such program violations are often where the department recoups from individuals what they have been overpaid in food stamps, he said.

Martins said there is an initiative to change the language printed on the benefit card to specify that use by someone other than the person or a member of the household, for which the benefit is intended, is against the law and will be prosecuted.

Critics of Harvell’s proposed legislation raised concerns about its impact on the poor and the potential burden to retailers.

Harvell said there is no incentive for states to stop fraud, because they lose out on federal money.

“If you get rid of all the fraud that would take money out of your economy because this program is supplemented by federal matches,” Harvell said. “It’s a perverse incentive, meaning that the incentive is not to find it.”

He said, “If you’re a guy with a checkbook, retailers want to know that there’s money in the account. If you write a bad check, it’s tattooed on the wall like it’s criminal, yet people paying taxes don’t have the same basic rights to know the individuals receiving food stamps are entitled to them.”

Mechele Cooper — 621-5663

[email protected]

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