Democratic leaders have whipped up a new slogan to address the LePage administration’s recent claim that thousands of Electronic Benefits Transfer cards were used at smoke shops, liquor stores and strip clubs.

Prosecute, don’t politicize.

The slogan wasn’t in the letter that Senate President Justin Alfond and House Speaker Mark Eves sent Thursday to the Office of the Attorney General, but that appeared to be the subtext. If the LePage administration has uncovered misuse of EBT transactions, Alfond and Eves wrote, then the state should prosecute.

The number of questionable transactions is less than two-tenths of 1 percent of the total EBT withdrawals, but Alfond and Eves said: “We cannot tolerate the abuse of these critical programs, no matter how small the amount.”

They also took a bit of a swipe at the Department of Health and Human Services, which, they noted, owned most of the responsibility to combat abuse and had received additional funding and manpower to weed it out and enforce integrity laws. The latter included the 2012 law signed by Gov. Paul LePage that prohibited EBT transactions in certain locations, such as liquor stores, bars and strip joints. Some Democrats have blamed the administration for not adequately enforcing that law. (LePage vowed to do better.)

The letter is an interesting pivot for Democrats, who typically play defense on welfare fraud. While Democrats often say fraud should be prosecuted, they also talk up its supposedly low rate of occurrence. That’s a difficult balance because talking up low occurrence rates brings them dangerously close to denial or indifference, neither of which is politically popular.

Republicans don’t have to worry about that. They’re against fraud. Boom. Done.

By challenging the administration to submit prosecutions to the AG on the EBT misuse, Democrats get a wee bit closer to that Republican position without abandoning their support for public assistance programs.

Also, prosecutions on the EBT issue won’t be easy, particularly in those instances where an EBT cardholder uses an ATM at a cash-only bar. There appears to be some ambiguity in the law about who is culpable for such a transaction: the cardholder or the bar owner. If it’s the bar owner, then that raises the question of how they’re expected to police ATM use. Presumably patrons are not going to be too fond of a bouncer looking over their shoulder while they’re withdrawing cash.

Remember: The feds say it’s not what you buy with welfare cash benefits, it’s where you buy it. From the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: “The federal law does not require a state to prevent a recipient from buying beer at a grocery store, but it does require that a state implement policies and practices to prevent any purchase involving an electronic transfer of TANF cash assistance, even non-alcoholic items, from a liquor store.” TANF, a federal program, stands for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

That’s what makes the EBT issue so complicated. It’s cash, and cardholders can withdraw that anywhere and buy pretty much what they want. It’s a big difference from food stamps (which are also loaded onto EBT cards), which prohibit the purchase of items such as liquor and cigarettes.

ONLINE PRIVACY ISSUES

There will be a few interesting public hearings and work sessions this week, including the bill to expand Medicaid, which in Maine is called MaineCare. But there’s also L.D. 1194, a bill sponsored by Rep. Michael McClellan, R-Raymond, that would prohibit employers and school administrators from obtaining login information of employees and students for social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, an employer or school official can lawfully request the passwords, then access everything in a person’s account, “including private messages and content that the individual has chosen to share selectively.”

Also, the ACLU of Maine says, a growing number of employers and schools are demanding that job applicants, employees and students hand over the passwords to their private social media accounts.

McClellan’s bill was held over from last session, but it’s another proposal that addresses evolving issues with online privacy. The work session will be held Tuesday.

NO QUESTIONS

The long-awaited first installment of the Alexander Group report was presented at the DHHS on Friday. Gary Alexander, the former welfare director in Pennsylvania, was there, but he didn’t address any questions about his critics.

Commissioner Mary Mayhew intercepted each question to Alexander about claims that he was hired to validate the LePage administration’s policies, not provide an independent analysis.

Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, attended the press event.

“I was surprised by that,” he said. “I don’t think that reflected well on (Mayhew) or Mr. Alexander. I think these things have been out there in the press and this was an opportunity for him to respond, to defend himself. I was frankly surprised that the commissioner was so strident in cutting off that line of questioning, which was appropriate. Taxpayers paid an awful lot of money for that report and think it’s very fair for people to be able to ask some questions of the person that prepared it.”

According to LePage, Alexander was the governor’s first pick for DHHS commissioner. The governor told selected reporters last month that Alexander turned down the job in 2010 for salary reasons. It’s not clear how much profit he’ll clear from the $925,000 welfare study, but it’s probably more than Mayhew’s annual base salary of $114,682.

Meanwhile, the administration continues to stay silent about other elements of the Alexander report. It came under fire for withholding the Medicaid report for nearly four weeks, drawing a rebuke from Attorney General Janet Mills. Media outlets, including the Portland Press Herald, have requested all of the documents associated with the report through the Freedom of Access Act, not just the finished product presented Friday.

Also, two elements of the study – an analysis of Maine’s welfare programs and an overhaul plan for Medicaid – were due Dec. 20, according to the Alexander Group contract. As of Friday, the LePage administration still had not responded to multiple requests asking whether state officials have received those studies.

The Portland Press Herald has requested those portions of the study under the Freedom of Access Act, which requires officials to cite a provision in the law that allows the state to withhold the documents.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com

Twitter: @stevemistler