AUGUSTA –– The state Senate voted Monday to approve a compromise version of Gov. Paul LePage’s plan to prohibit welfare recipients from using electronic benefit transfer cards for tobacco products, alcohol, lottery tickets or bail.
The amended bill adds a provision to prohibit retailers from accepting EBT cards for those items. It would pair with a law that now prohibits the use of EBT cards at gaming facilities, strip clubs or stores that primarily sell alcoholic beverages.
Another new provision would require recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to sign an agreement that they won’t use benefits for the prohibited items, and lays out penalties if the state finds out they did.
The amended bill was approved 18-17. Two Democrats, Sens. Margaret Craven of Lewiston and Stan Gerzofsky of Brunswick, joined the Republican minority in opposing it.
The vote adds a wrinkle to the ongoing debate over the governor’s bills to change Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a federally funded program that distributes cash benefits to about 8,000 Maine households.
Democrats, who have majorities in the Legislature, say LePage’s proposals are meant to boost his re-election campaign and would be costly and unenforceable because TANF distributes untraceable cash benefits.
However, Monday’s vote illustrates the political reality that at least one of LePage’s bills resonates with the public.
Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, sponsored the amendment. He said he was reluctant to do so, but many of his constituents want the prohibition.
“Do I 100 percent believe in my heart that we should go further than we did? I don’t think so,” he said. “It’s important that we show the people that we hear their concerns.”
Republicans opposed the amendment, saying the penalty provisions aren’t strong enough. Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said the bill calls for sanctions that are less than those already established for misuse of TANF and other welfare.
“If we decrease penalties to the point that they don’t mean anything, then we decrease the integrity of the (TANF) program,” Katz said.
According to the bill, each recipient would have to sign an agreement with the state Department of Health and Human Services saying they won’t use their card to buy any of the banned items.
Anyone caught doing so would receive a warning letter. On the second offense, an adult recipient would lose the benefits for three months. For a third offense, the recipient would lose benefits for six months. The proposal would allow the DHHS to disqualify a recipient after a hearing.
The proposed penalties would apply only to the prohibited purchases, not reduce current sanctions for fraud or misuse.
Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said the amendment is an attempt at compromise. He said Republicans won’t budge on the issue but refuse to do anything to address corporate welfare.
“It’s funny, for all of the indignation that you hear in here about people on welfare, you don’t hear the same indignation about corporate welfare,” Jackson said.
The Senate’s vote on the bill, L.D. 1822, sets up votes in the House, which last week rejected two amendments that contained elements of L.D. 1822. The merger of the product ban with an existing law and the addition of enforcement by retailers may generate more Democratic support.
Curtis Picard, executive director of the Retail Association of Maine, said Monday that the organization hadn’t had a chance to review the details of the amendment, but there is concern that the onus for policing EBT misuse would fall on store owners.
While Republicans said the sanctions would be too lenient, Democrats said that not only cardholders would be penalized, but also their families.
Most recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families are children, according to DHHS data. The program distributed $3 million in benefits in March. The 7,408 cases in Maine covered more than 12,000 children
Also Monday, the Senate rejected or passed significantly altered versions of the governor’s three other welfare bills.
Mirroring a vote in the House last week, Senate Democrats rejected the governor’s bill to prohibit use of EBT cards outside Maine. Instead, they passed a proposal ordering the DHHS to study out-of-state use.
Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat, has said LePage’s proposal is unconstitutional.
The Senate also rejected two bills that would add new work search requirements for TANF recipients.
One bill would require recipients to show that they have applied for three jobs before receiving cash benefits. Current law requires that once people are getting benefits, they need to show they have been looking for work to continue receiving them.
Republicans noted that upfront work search requirements have been adopted in at least 19 states and that such measures ensure that beneficiaries exhaust all employment options before seeking public assistance. Democrats said the restrictions have dramatically reduced caseloads with no measurable impact on employment.
Pennsylvania passed an upfront work search law in 2012. In September, the state’s Department of Public Welfare reported a spike in denials for welfare cash benefits, from a decades-long average of about 50 percent to a high of 81 percent in February. In 2013, eight of 10 applicants were denied benefits, according to a review by the Philadelphia Inquirer.
All of the bills face additional votes before going to the governor.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: