AUGUSTA — Democrats in the House of Representatives rejected three welfare reform proposals by Gov. Paul LePage on Thursday while giving preliminary approval to a significantly altered version of a fourth.

Mostly along party lines, the Democrat-controlled House voted 83-61 to approve a proposal to add smoke shops to a current law that prohibits electronic benefit transfer card transactions at certain locations, including liquor stores and casinos. The bill replaces the governor’s proposal to ban EBT card use for bail, alcohol, lottery tickets or tobacco products.

Three other proposals, all related to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which distributes cash benefits to about 8,000 Maine families, were rejected in partly-line votes.

Most recipients in the program are children, according to data from the state Department of Health and Human Services. The program, funded through a federal grant, distributed $3 million in benefits in March. The 7,408 cases in Maine covered more than 12,000 children.

Two of the governor’s bills focused on EBT transactions for cash benefits distributed through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. Two others centered on work search requirements for the program.

Transactions with EBT cards have become the subject of intense scrutiny and rhetoric. Republicans have said reforms are needed to prevent and penalize misuse of public benefits. Democrats have called LePage’s proposals unenforceable and potentially harmful to low-income families.

“No one wants to see funds meant for struggling families spent at smoke shops or liquor stores,” Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves of North Berwick said in a prepared statement. “That’s why we are expanding the (EBT location) ban and calling on the LePage administration to enforce the current law. If there is fraud or misuse, prosecute it, don’t politicize it.”

Recipients of cash welfare benefits are now prohibited from using their EBT cards at gambling facilities, strip clubs, and retail establishments where 50 percent or more of the revenue is derived from liquor sales.

Maine law does not prohibit purchases of specific items or penalize beneficiaries. LePage’s proposal would have banned purchases of alcohol, lottery tickets or tobacco products while establishing penalties, including suspension of benefits. Democrats rejected the proposal, saying it would be unenforceable because Temporary Assistance for Needy Families distributes cash.

In 2012, the Government Accountability Office, the watchdog agency for Congress, analyzed similar restrictions in other states and found that “with no controls on how or where individuals spend withdrawn cash, a recipient could withdraw money at an authorized location and use it at certain locations or for certain purchases restricted by some states.”

Republicans and the LePage administration acknowledged the enforcement challenges, but said the bill would deter misuse. They characterized the altered bill as a “paper tiger” that would keep the status quo.

LePage issued a statement after the votes saying, “I’m appalled that liberal legislators would reject these common-sense bills to reform our welfare system. … These liberal legislators and the media claim there is only a small percentage of fraud and abuse, but that percentage adds up to millions of wasted taxpayers’ dollars. While they squabble over what percentage of welfare fraud is acceptable, our Administration is working to stop 100 percent of welfare fraud.”

Democrats voted down the governor’s three other proposals. One would have prohibited TANF recipients from making out-of-state cash withdrawals with EBT cards. Democrats instead voted 78-55 to approve a study to evaluate out-of-state EBT use before considering legislation next year.

A proposal to require TANF applicants to prove that they have applied for three jobs before receiving benefits was defeated. Recipients now must show they’re looking for work to continue receiving benefits.

Democrats also rejected a proposal designed to change the program’s work requirements. 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. It also included additional work search requirements that the LePage administration said were needed to avoid a $13 million penalty for not conforming with federal guidelines.

Democrats have said the penalty is unlikely because the state has submitted a corrective action plan with the federal government and stopped incurring fines.

Thursday’s action followed several votes on amendments that reflected the politics of welfare reform proposals that are popular with the public.

Two Democrat-sponsored amendments went along with the proposed ban on EBT transactions for bail, alcohol, lottery tickets or tobacco products. One, sponsored by Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, the assistant majority leader, called for reduced penalties for beneficiaries caught buying the banned items.

Rep. Alex Willette, R-Mapleton, said the proposal had no enforcement power.

“If I robbed a convenience store, I wouldn’t get a warning letter in the mail,” he said.

McCabe’s amendment was defeated in a vote of 111-33. Only one Republican supported it.

A proposal by House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, rolled all four of the governor’s proposals into one while retaining the Parents As Scholars program. The amendment was defeated, 73-63, although nine Democrats voted with the Republican minority to support the measure.

The proposals now move to the Senate.

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

smistler@pressherald.com

Twitter: @stevemistler