Maine is the most welfare-dependent state in the nation, according to a report released Thursday by the Maine Heritage Policy Center.

The conservative think tank and advocacy group said dependence has skyrocketed during the Baldacci administration, with enrollment growing by 70 percent since 2003. At the same time, it said, Maine’s poverty level has remained relatively flat.

“Today, one in three Mainers is on some form of welfare,” said Tarren Bragdon, chief executive officer of the group and an author of the report.

That enrollment rate — actually 29 percent, according to the report — includes a long list of state-operated social service programs, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, food stamps and the MaineCare health insurance program. It does not include Social Security or Medicare.

Maine’s next governor and Legislature need to overhaul and simplify the complex system to reduce enrollment and encourage independence, according to the group.

“Maine has a welfare system that is designed for dependence,” Bragdon said. “We need to focus the resources we have on the truly needy.”

Brenda Harvey, commissioner of Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services, criticized the report Thursday as misleading and politically motivated.

“I think the suggestion that our budget has grown exponentially under the Baldacci administration is absolutely incorrect,” she said. “The general fund, the state of Maine taxpayers’ money, for DHHS over the governor’s eight years has seen an 8.1 percent increase,” she said, while federal funding received by the department is up 28 percent since 2003.

“It seems to me that this report and the timing of this report (during the gubernatorial campaign) is clearly supporting a political agenda,” Harvey said.

Bragdon said the policy center began analyzing Maine’s welfare system a year ago, when U.S. census data showed the state near the top in enrollment rates. It used federal census data and information formally requested from Maine’s DHHS to compare Maine with other states and to calculate the increases in spending and enrollment.

The report says:

Maine ranks second among all states in the enrollment rate in three major programs: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, food supplements or food stamps, and Medicaid or MaineCare. It is the only state in the top 10 for all three programs.

Total welfare spending in Maine totaled about $2.5 billion in fiscal year 2008, a 78 percent increase from $1.4 billion in 1998. That figure includes federal, state and local dollars.

Maine has relatively liberal eligibility requirements. It is one of nine states, for example, that provide Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to convicted drug felons, and is one of seven to provide food stamps to new immigrants who aren’t U.S. citizens.

Maine does not adequately enforce work requirements and has weak sanctions for rules violations.

Bragdon said he also hopes the report will help dispel myths about the system, including the claim that Maine’s liberal benefits attract immigrants to the state. Although Maine does provide some welfare benefits to new, legal immigrants, that isn’t a significant driver of the spending growth and isn’t enough to attract newcomers, he said.

Among the report’s recommendations is to change the name of the state’s welfare division from the Office of Integrated Access and Support to Maine EMPOWER (Employing and Moving People Off Welfare and Encouraging Responsibility). The acronym is borrowed from Arizona.

Harvey, the DHHS commissioner, said the report inflates enrollment numbers by including MaineCare, which provides state-subsidized health insurance to needy children and the disabled.

“Providing health care is not welfare,” she said.

The report also targets programs that help welfare recipients find jobs, and Maine’s successful efforts to attract more federal aid, Harvey said.

Bragdon said that spending federal money on welfare is no better than spending state money.

“The last time I checked, the feds have a $1.5 trillion deficit that Maine taxpayers and Maine children are going to have to deal with,” he said.

The Maine Heritage Policy Center does not endorse political candidates or parties, Bragdon said.

Its report does point to some concerns raised during the campaign by Waterville Mayor Paul LePage, the Republican candidate. It also raises new issues that the group hopes will be discussed by political leaders, Bragdon said.

The 28-page report is posted on the center’s website (www.mainepolicy.org).

The DHHS posts data on a web page, www.maine.gov/dhhs/realfacts, intended to counter some of the recurring criticisms of Maine’s welfare system.

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

[email protected]