AUGUSTA – Maine Gov. Paul LePage unveiled renewed Republican efforts to target welfare fraud Tuesday, proposing measures requiring some welfare recipients to prove they’ve applied for work and limiting items that can be purchased with electronic benefit transfer cards.
The bills signal LePage’s intention to once again make welfare reform a priority when lawmakers return next month. But the ideas will face significant pushback from Democrats who control the Legislature and say the proposals will only make it harder for struggling families to get the help they need.
LePage plans to introduce bills for next session that would require able-bodied people to show they’ve applied for three jobs to get benefits in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, and change some exceptions for participation in welfare work-search programs, according to a copy of LePage’s weekly radio address provided to The Associated Press. Another bill would ban EBT cards from being used for things like alcohol, lottery tickets and cigarettes.
LePage said the changes won’t harm people who are truly in need, but that the current system needs to be tightened to prevent abuse.
“If they really need assistance and agree to play by the rules, Mainers are more than happy to provide them with benefits,” he said. “But we can no longer tolerate an unchecked welfare system that has no accountability. Mainers demand accountability from their government, and that should apply to our welfare system too.”
Two of the bills are similar to those House Republican Leader Ken Fredette attempted to introduce earlier this year.
Democratic leaders shot down those bills, saying they would make it harder for recipients to get benefits. They said that the measures vilified poor families and that lawmakers should be working to help people on welfare get good-paying jobs, not limiting them from assistance.
“Struggling Maine families need a pathway out of poverty, not a kick when they are down,” said House Speaker Mark Eves of North Berwick, pointing to a Democratic-backed measure that aims to help welfare recipients get job training as one of the right ways to help the poor. “Poverty in Maine is a serious issue. One in four children in our state live in poverty. We need real solutions, not political rhetoric,” he said.
Fredette attempted to resubmit the bills, but they were rejected by the Democratic-majority Legislative Council. The governor can introduce bills without going through that process. Fredette called on Democratic lawmakers to join the governor and Republicans in backing the bills Tuesday.
LePage has made welfare reform a key goal of his administration. During his tenure, Maine imposed a five-year limit on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, delayed benefits for some immigrants and required that welfare recipients who have been convicted of a drug-related felony submit to drug tests.
LePage, who was homeless as a youth in Lewiston, described the proposal to look for work before signing up for welfare as “common sense legislation” and that 19 other states already have similar requirements.
“Progressives and liberals think the status quo in our welfare system is just fine. They refuse to support any reforms, but Mainers know they’re out of touch. Mainers know the system is broken,” he said.