The legislative session is off to a bang, courtesy of our governor, Paul LePage.

Last Tuesday, the day before the so-called short session began, the governor issued a news release heralding the “eye-opening” abuse of Electronic Benefit Transfer cards in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

The information released by the governor showed 3,701 instances of purchases or ATM cash withdrawals at bars, liquor stores, strip clubs and even some vacation destinations over the course of nearly two years.

The data admittedly sounded shocking and generated the sort of “welfare fraud” headlines that surely pleased the governor and his allies.

But the governor’s release was more notable for the information it lacked than for what it contained. Upon closer inspection, it revealed little more than a manufactured, election-year crisis.

While the governor presented the total number of questionable electronic benefit transfer card transactions, he conspicuously omitted how much money those transactions represented, as well as their percentage compared to total annual EBT card expenditures.

The lack of such obviously relevant context prohibits citizens and lawmakers from judging how much taxpayer money is potentially being abused and how significant this issue is within the Temporary Aid to Needy Families program.

What’s more, since the government does not track the actual purchases made with these questionable transactions, there’s no way to know for certain what percentage were legitimate or truly fraudulent, allowing the governor to paint them all with one damning brushstroke. How convenient.

Of course, there are already laws on the books – one even signed by the governor himself in 2012 – prohibiting the use of EBT cards at the very establishments the governor highlights in his release.

That would suggest, ironically, that the governor’s own administration is struggling to investigate and prosecute the very fraud they claim is occurring.

But the most curious part about the governor’s release is that it actually undermines his assertion of widespread EBT card abuse and concomitant cries for reforms.

As Steve Mistler, State House bureau chief for this paper, astutely calculated, the governor’s alleged inappropriate transactions “accounted for about two-tenths of 1 percent of all EBT use.”

That’s a shockingly low figure, suggesting that the vast majority of beneficiaries (99.8 percent) are not only playing by the rules, but that any fraud could be readily detected by a regular review of EBT card data and resolved by the enforcement of existing law.

But that sort of rational, data-driven policymaking is unlikely to prevail in LePage’s corner office, where crisis manufacturing and policy-by-ideology are a stock in trade.

Well before the EBT card “scandal,” the governor regularly made claims of rampant welfare fraud. Yet when the governor spent $700,000 per year on eight additional fraud investigators, they collectively referred 45 cases of potential fraud to law enforcement officials in 2012. That’s 5½ cases per investigator, an extraordinarily small number.

To be clear, any cases of fraud, no matter how few, should be prosecuted. But the contention that Maine’s welfare programs are subject to rampant abuse that is dramatically fleecing Maine taxpayers is simply false.

Rather, the governor is baiting voters with stories and anecdotes that not only stigmatize and stereotype the poor, but also offer them up as a political foil for the real economic challenges and hardships so many Mainers are experiencing.

Put another way, it’s much easier to blame the fictional “welfare cheat” for the state’s abiding fiscal woes, rather than present real solutions to create new, empowering economic opportunities for the truly needy.

LePage’s facts-be-damned governing style even got a boost last week from a nearly $1 million, taxpayer-financed, no-bid political prop otherwise known as the Alexander Report.

LePage released the first installment of the report – partially funded with almost $70,000 the governor diverted from the TANF program – only after Maine’s attorney general determined he could no longer legally withhold it from public scrutiny.

The governor promoted the Alexander Group report as an impartial study of Maine’s welfare system and the potential for Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.

However, its primary author, Gary Alexander, is the controversial former secretary of public welfare in Pennsylvania and an outspoken, deeply partisan opponent of Medicaid expansion.

Even before the report’s release, the governor told reporters Wednesday, “I have not completed reading it, but I am reading it and will be done shortly.” Moments later he added, “Everything in there is going to vindicate my position on not expanding (Medicaid).”

If there were any question whether the report’s recommendations were fully baked before they were written, the governor’s comments are instructive. Of course, a study by the nonpartisan Kaiser Foundation previously determined that Maine could save $690 million between 2014 and 2022 if it expands Medicaid coverage.

But why let the facts get in the way of a good political issue?

Michael Cuzzi is a former campaign aide to President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and former U.S. Rep. Tom Allen. He manages the Portland office for VOX Global, a strategic communications and public affairs firm He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @CuzziMJ