AUGUSTA — Democrats on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee voted Wednesday to reject and amend welfare reforms proposed by Gov. Paul LePage.
The Democrats changed a proposal to prohibit recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families from making out-of-state cash withdrawals with electronic benefit transfer cards, opting instead to study the issue before considering legislation next year.
A proposal to prohibit use of the cards to pay for bail, alcohol, lottery tickets or tobacco products was replaced with an amendment adding smoke shops to a current law that prohibits EBT transactions at certain locations, including liquor stores and casinos.
The committee also voted along party lines to reject a proposal to require applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to prove that they have applied for three jobs before receiving benefits. Recipients now must show they’re looking for employment to continue receiving benefits.
Another proposal designed to change the program’s work requirements also was rejected by Democrats. The original bill called for the elimination of Parents As Scholars, a job training program that provides cash assistance to low-income parents who seek two- or four-year degrees. The LePage administration said the change was needed to avoid a $13 million penalty for not conforming with federal guidelines.
Democrats said the penalty is unlikely because the state has submitted a corrective action plan with the federal government and stopped incurring fines.
The committee’s proposals will likely win approval in the Democratic-controlled House and Senate, but Wednesday’s mostly party-line votes show they lack Republican support and will not survive vetoes by LePage.
Republicans and LePage slammed the committee votes, saying in a volley of prepared statements that Democrats are unwilling to enact reform.
The four bills faced political and logistical obstacles from the outset. Their rejection, however, could have political consequences for Democratic lawmakers, because legislation portrayed as curbing the misuse of public assistance benefits is often popular with the public.
Democrats have sought to blunt the criticism by labeling LePage’s proposals as politically motivated, with potential costly or harmful consequences. They noted that the proposal to prohibit purchases of specific products with EBT cards would be costly and potentially ineffective because the benefits can be withdrawn as cash.
In 2012, the governor signed a law to prohibit the use of EBT cards at gambling facilities, strip clubs, and retail establishments where 50 percent or more of the revenue comes from liquor sales. Data released by the administration in January showing transactions at prohibited locations suggested lagging enforcement of the law.
Democrats said the proposal to add smoke shops to the banned locations should be accompanied by added enforcement by the Department of Health and Human Services.
“If there is fraud, no matter how small, it should be investigated and prosecuted, not politicized,” said Rep. Dick Farnsworth, D-Portland, co-chairman of the committee. “We are asking the governor to investigate and prosecute that fraud.”
In a statement, LePage said his proposals made sense.
“I am the first one in line to help someone in need, but I don’t want to be taken advantage of and neither do hard-working Mainers,” he said. “These liberal politicians would rather see welfare cash benefits, which are provided by struggling Maine taxpayers, go out of state than to keep that money in Maine.”
Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, said the bill to study out-of-state use of EBT cards is legislative parlance for unwillingness to make tough decisions.
“In this case, it’s also liberal-speak for ‘there’s no problem in our welfare system,’ ” she said. “The time for studying and pondering has long passed; the time for action is now.”
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: