AUGUSTA – First-year state Rep. Stephen Wood, R-Sabattus, was waiting to buy groceries when he watched a woman receive $30 back from the cashier after swiping her government-issued electronic benefit card.
Minutes later, he said, he saw the woman at a nearby gas station.
“I got my gas, went inside and this woman was purchasing a 12-pack, cigarettes and lottery tickets,” he said. “I don’t begrudge anybody smoking. … But I don’t think the state should be paying for alcohol or tobacco products or lottery tickets. That, I have a problem with.”
Vows by the new governor and Legislature to reform welfare have all sides prepping for public debate.
Lawmakers have submitted bills to alter how the state administers its welfare programs. Republicans have proposed changes such as imposing time limits on eligibility and establishing residency requirements for receiving services.
Advocacy groups are poised to release new studies about Mainers who depend on welfare, to combat what they say are falsehoods about the programs, based on anecdotes instead of the facts.
Based on his experience, Wood has proposed legislation to prevent people from taking out cash from their food supplement benefits.
Federal law already bars people from withdrawing cash against their benefits — if they receive food stamps. But people who receive a cash assistance benefit like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families are allowed to use their electronic benefit cards to take out cash.
The two programs are funded through federal grants, but Wood said it doesn’t matter whether it comes from the federal or state budget — it’s all taxpayers’ money.
“Which pocket are you taking the money out of? … It’s still going to the state or the feds. It’s still taxpayer money,” he said.
Steven Bowen, a senior policy adviser to Gov. Paul LePage, worked previously for the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative think tank that has strongly advocated for welfare reform.
“There’s just a sense that no one is minding the store, just generally speaking, and I think that’s a concern you are going to hear in what the administration puts forward,” Bowen said.
“(LePage’s) real goal is to make it so people who need that benefit can get it to get on their feet, get themselves together and get the education training they need and get out of the system. That’s going to be the challenge.”
Bowen said administration officials also are convinced there must be a “culture change” in the Department of Health and Human Services.
“The goal is not to maximize enrollment. The goal is to give people the resources they need to get back on their feet and become productive citizens, and that doesn’t seem to be the goal at DHHS,” he said.
Another senior LePage adviser, Mary Mayhew, was recently nominated for the post of DHHS commissioner. Mayhew previously was president of the Maine Hospital Association for 11 years and has vowed to lead the DHHS in a new direction.
“Everyone agrees (the DHHS) must be held more accountable to families and taxpayers,” she said at a recent news conference.
Bowen predicted that welfare reform proposals from the Le-Page administration will likely be separate from the upcoming biennial budget, so they will receive a full public vetting through the committee process.
“Right now the budget issues and the job issues are dominating, but I think once we get into February, we’ll be in a position where we start to roll out some policy pieces and some legislation,” he said.
Meanwhile, a new report by the Maine Women’s Lobby and Maine Equal Justice Partners that analyzes which Mainers are receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families is ready to be presented to lawmakers and the public.
Representatives of the groups said the goal of the study, done in 2010 by professors from the University of Maine and the University of New England, is grounding the upcoming debates about welfare in facts.
A similar report released in 1995 helped shape the way Maine structured welfare programs after the federal reforms.
“It was a very similar time, there were a lot of stories and anecdotes and decisions being made on the basis of those, but there was very little real information about who these families were,” said Chris Hastedt of Maine Equal Justice Partners, an advocacy group for low-income Mainers.
One of the most striking findings of the new report, Hastedt said, is the number of disabled Mainers receiving benefits now, versus 1995.
“There’s twice as many families that are coping with serious disability than there were,” said Hastedt.
It makes sense, she said, because Maine emphasized access to education and transitional benefits when it structured its welfare programs. “So families that have been able to work have largely left” the system.
Sixty-seven percent of families surveyed had someone who is disabled, Hastedt said. “When you get to families that have been on the caseload for more than five years, it’s 88 percent,” she said.
Such figures may complicate efforts to reform the system, as lawmakers balance a responsibility to care for certain populations, like the very young, the disabled and the elderly, against rooting out waste, fraud and abuse.
“I’m not against helping needy people,” said Wood, the lawmaker from Sabattus, “but I do have a problem with someone that has the ability to work that is not working because they can make more money on welfare.”
MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: