Many, many times between now and Election Day in November, Gov. Paul LePage will stand before his adoring supporters and proclaim, “Folks, let me tell you what I’m doing to de-fraud Maine’s welfare system. (Relax, word police. He means he’s going after fraud, not committing it.) As I speak, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services is hard at work putting photos on EBT cards!”
And many, many times at campaign events all over Maine, LePage’s cherished “38 percent” will cheer wildly and holler things like “Go, get ’em, Paul!” and “It’s about time!”
Then they’ll high-five one another and toast the Guv with their own special brand of Kool-Aid – you know, the kind that makes you see things that aren’t really there.
Back when she announced the switch to photo EBTs last month, Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew said it’s part of the “administration’s efforts to strengthen the integrity of our public assistance programs.”
What Mayhew didn’t say, because she hasn’t a clue, is exactly how a photo on a piece of plastic achieves such a lofty goal.
Maine now has about 220,000 EBT cards in circulation for beneficiaries of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and/or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. In LePage’s and Mayhew’s world, each card is a crime waiting to happen – in fact, they claim repeatedly, EBT cards are being stolen, swapped and bartered for drugs every day from Kittery to Fort Kent.
The problem is, beyond a few recent cases of abuse that the administration trumpeted as the mere tip of Maine’s welfare-fraud iceberg, they have yet to produce the iceberg.
In fact, a bill that would have required the Department of Health and Human Services to do a little heavy lifting and actually compile and catalogue cases of fraud was vetoed by LePage after being passed by the Democratic-controlled Legislature. In his veto letter, LePage said the work would cost an additional $45,000 in state money and thus could not be done “within existing resources,” as lawmakers envisioned.
Fair enough. But if $45,000 is such a deal breaker for at least getting a handle on flaws in Maine’s welfare system, why is LePage now shelling out $162,000 (and $41,000 per year thereafter) to slap mugshots on EBT cards with no evidence whatsoever that it will improve the security of the system?
Consider: Under federal regulations, it’s perfectly legal for the holder of an EBT card to allow the use of said card (including, of course, its four-digit personal identification number) by a household member whose name (and now picture) appears nowhere on the card.
Federal regulations also prohibit merchants from scrutinizing holders of EBT cards any more than they would holders of credit or debit cards.
Bottom line, without or without photos, EBT cards will continue to be proffered as legal tender by people other than those to whom the cards are issued.
“A card is a card is a card,” said Shelley Doak, executive director of the Maine Grocers Association, in an interview Tuesday.
As far as her group’s 300 members are concerned, she added, “it’s business as usual. There’s no additional responsibility placed on the vendor. There’s no change.”
Thus, if you thought photos now will lead to the exposure of EBT fraud at the checkout counter, think again. In its training on how to handle EBT transactions, the U.S. Department of Agriculture instructs retailers to “disregard the photo, because transactions are valid as long as a person has the card and the … PIN.”
So why, beyond providing a red-meat rallying cry for Camp LePage between now and November, is the DHHS preparing to haul every EBT recipient (except, mercifully, the elderly, the disabled and anyone younger than 19) into a regional office to have their mugshot taken?
“The photographs will act as a deterrent to those who may be considering selling their card in exchange for cash or drugs and that is the focus with this action,” said DHHS spokesman John Martins in an email on Tuesday. “A photograph is just one more tool in deterring inappropriate use and will cause individuals to think twice before selling a benefit card with his or her photo on it.”
Let me get this straight. A ne’er-do-well with an EBT card now thinks nothing of handing the card, with his or her name on it, to the neighborhood drug dealer in exchange for a bag of heroin or a rock of crack cocaine. But put that person’s photo above the name already on the card and, presto chango, he or she suddenly comes down with the heebie-jeebies?
Then there’s the whole federal oversight thing.
In a recent letter to Mayhew, Patricia Dombroski, interim Northeast regional director for the USDA, strongly suggested that Maine wait at least until the feds finish vetting its transition to photo EBTs before implementing it.
“Given the risk of losing Federal financial participation, as well as the risk for litigation against the State should the State’s implementation of the photo EBT card violate provisions of the Food and Nutrition Act or SNAP regulations, Maine should not rush into implementation,” wrote Dombroski.
Responded Mayhew, “Quite frankly, your opposition to Maine beginning this project defies common-sense logic.”
Ah, yes. The pot-meet-kettle defense.
Mayhew & Co. also pointed out that photo EBTs already exist in New York and Massachusetts (where, in the latter’s case, a botched transition temporarily cut off benefits to some 8,000 card holders), implying that Maine is somehow behind the curve on stamping out welfare fraud. But again, they fail to provide a smidgen of data to support the equation that EBT plus photo equals a sounder system.
To the contrary, in an audit 13 years ago in Missouri, State Auditor (now U.S. Sen.) Claire McCaskill found that “the statutorily required inclusion of a client photograph on each card does not effectively prevent fraud … as intended by the General Assembly.” (So they stopped doing it.)
Then there’s the claim by the DHHS that the EBT card with photo attached will “be recognized as a more formal form of identification” in all kinds of situations.
How nice – someone asks for your ID and, to comply with the request, you’re forced to out yourself as a welfare recipient. Which, when you think about it, is what this whole fast-track approach to photo EBTs is really all about.
It’s Candidate LePage’s way of telling Mainers on welfare, just in time for his re-election campaign, that he’s got his eye on you, that you’d better watch your step, that the moment you’re issued that card you live under a cloud of government-sanctioned suspicion.
Not fair? Who cares?
His base will eat it up.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: