Gov. LePage is convinced that “welfare” will win him re-election.
So convinced, in fact, that he released the same “eye-opening” electronic benefit transfer data not once, but twice, in less than two months.
Maybe he thought we just didn’t “get it” the first time.
But we do get it. And after three years of LePage, a majority of Mainers simply believe that the governor’s leadership is more objectionable than the de minimis welfare fraud against which he indignantly chafes.
And that dynamic represents the abiding failure of this administration. The governor never grasped – and remains incapable of grasping – that his belligerence, unpredictability and deliberate half-truths actually undermine his own agenda, as well as his prospects for a second term.
The governor’s toxicity is such that the only people willing to stand with him – and by extension the only people politically relevant in his orbit – are the 38 percent of conservative ideologues who originally delivered him to the Blaine House in 2010.
And that political reality is precisely what motivates the governor’s incessant focus on “welfare reform.”
It is a red-meat issue designed to agitate a base that fervently believes all of Maine’s problems can be solved by eliminating or reducing “welfare state” handouts to an imagined class of degenerate layabouts.
That ideological myopia is even reflected in the very data the governor uses to “validate” his claims of rampant fraud.
The governor maintains that “millions” of dollars in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families EBT card transactions must be fraudulent because, well, they were spent out of state. Yet even though it’s perfectly legal to spend TANF funds beyond Maine, the governor is determined to eliminate the transactions entirely.
And he isn’t letting the facts get in the way of a good election year issue.
The truth is, 98 percent of all TANF benefits are spent in Maine, with another 1.5 percent spent in New England states and only 0.5 percent spent in other states.
What’s more, the governor is intentionally conflating TANF and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program spending to overstate the “suspect” expenditures by nearly $13 million, even though SNAP purchases are limited to groceries.
The actual total of so-called “questionable” out-of-state TANF transactions in 2013 was about $1 million, or about .0002 percent of Maine’s biennial budget – or almost exactly what the governor spent on his no-bid, politically rigged and economically flawed Alexander Group “welfare report.”
But if that’s not enough, the governor can’t actually prove that any of these transactions were fraudulent because the government doesn’t track the purchases. Instead, all he can do it spout anecdotes, allegations and breathless hyperbole.
EBT transactions at bars, liquor stores, strip clubs and casinos are already illegal under Maine law. In other words, the governor already possesses ample policy and law enforcement tools to investigate and prosecute whatever welfare fraud exists, as well as overwhelming bipartisan political support to do so.
Yet, curiously, the governor’s administration has not referred one of these “questionable” TANF transactions to the Attorney General’s Office for prosecution, despite receiving $700,000 per year for eight new fraud investigators.
If the governor’s claims of rampant welfare fraud were true, his administration would undoubtedly trumpet rafts of arrests and indictments, making public examples of welfare cheats while also boosting his re-election bid. But that isn’t happening and likely won’t.
And that’s why the governor’s focus on welfare fraud is not a serious policy proposal but instead a ginned-up political issue designed to motivate a base simmering with anger toward a fictional class of welfare queens.
So don’t expect the governor to turn away from this issue any time soon. In fact, we’ve already seen him expand the very definition of “welfare” to nearly any form of government assistance, from Medicaid to municipal revenue sharing. Why?
Because the more spending that falls under the “welfare” rubric, the more the governor can position himself as a unyielding protector of taxpayer dollars and a counterweight to “liberal, big-government” Democrats.
It’s a message that resonates powerfully with the governor’s base and one of the few in his arsenal. He can’t campaign as an effective leader who went to Augusta and got state government working again; he can’t campaign on the state’s meager economic recovery, and he can’t rely on his likability or popularity.
Instead, he’ll beat the welfare drum over and over, stigmatizing and demonizing Maine’s poor and offering them up as a political foil for the real economic challenges and hardships Mainers face every day.
It’s a classic bait and switch. And in the end, it’s considerably more politically expedient than presenting real solutions to empower, educate and employ Maine’s truly needy.
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 headquartered in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at: [email protected] Twitter: @CuzziMJ