BANGOR — The federal government asked Maine officials Friday to delay their plans to put photos on welfare benefit cards, but Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s administration said it will move forward with the new cards anyway.
The Maine Department of Health and Human Services announced last week that it will begin putting photos on electronic benefit transfer cards in Bangor on Monday and then expand the new cards across the state in an effort to target fraud and abuse in the program.
But in a letter to the department obtained by The Associated Press on Friday, federal officials said that Maine should wait until they have had time to fully review and approve the state’s plan.
Maine should not rush into implementation, “given the risk of losing federal financial participation, as well as the risk for litigation” if the state violates regulations in the welfare program, wrote Patricia Dombroski, interim regional administrator for the Food and Nutrition Service within the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Dombroski said that their concerns are based on experiences with other states’ implementation of photos on EBT cards, “which resulted in significant negative impacts for clients, retailers and the state agency.”
In a response to the USDA on Friday, DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew said that federal regulations allow the state to place photographs on the cards and that the state will move forward in issuing them at the Bangor office on Monday.
The state has said that most cards will have photos on them within a year but that residents who are younger than 19, are 60 or older, are blind or disabled or are victims of domestic violence will be exempt.
Mayhew said the state chose to begin with a pilot project in Bangor where recipients will voluntarily receive new cards because it understands the importance of ensuring a smooth transition. The federal government’s opposition to Maine beginning the project “defies common-sense logic,” she said.
“This one-office launch will give Maine the opportunity to identify potential weaknesses in our processes and give us time to make any adjustments and corrections before a mandatory statewide implementation,” she said.
Advocates for the poor have said that photo IDs on EBT cards have been costly and ineffective in other states and will put up barriers for low-income people who rely on the benefits for food and other necessities.
On Friday, they said the LePage administration is putting the state at risk for losing federal funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
“If Gov. LePage moves forward with his politically motivated effort to place photographs on EBT cards, he will jeopardize tens of thousands of federal dollars used to help administer a program that feeds thousands of Mainers, including children and seniors,” Sara Gagne-Holmes, executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners, which provides legal services for the poor, said in a statement.
A spokesman for the USDA said in an email that he couldn’t speculate on the next steps or potential actions that the department would take.