SKOWHEGAN — One of the most rewarding parts of being a legislator is having the opportunity to pass laws that have real and positive consequences for those you represent.
During the Republican-led 125th Legislature (2010-2012), my fellow lawmakers and I were able to do that by cutting taxes for low- and middle-income Mainers, reducing the regulatory burden for businesses, passing workers’ compensation reforms and lowering health insurance premiums by making the industry more competitive in Maine.
Those landmark reforms have resulted in a growing economy in Maine, marked by a dropping unemployment rate that has consistently stayed well below the national average. Other reforms in our energy policy hastened the introduction of natural gas to central Maine’s Kennebec Valley corridor, saving homeowners and businesses money.
Unfortunately, over the last two years of the Democratic-led 126th Legislature, we were unable to carry out the wishes of Mainers in one important area: welfare reform.
While most of us are willing to help those among us who are down and out, we have all seen or at least heard about abuse of the system. The extent of it was brought to light this past winter when reports showed that Maine electronic benefit transfer cards were being used at bars, strip clubs and smoke shops. A separate investigation showed the Maine-issued cards were being used all over the country, including places like Disney World and Las Vegas.
According to the state Department of Health and Human Services, about $2.8 million in cash welfare benefits was spent outside the state of Maine over the past three years, mostly in New Hampshire. Significant amounts were also spent in Massachusetts, New York and Florida.
In response to the understandable outrage among Mainers, Gov. LePage introduced a number of common-sense reforms. They included proposals to ban out-of-state cash withdrawals with EBT cards; prohibit the use of EBT cards for bail or to buy alcohol, lottery tickets and tobacco products, and require recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to prove they are actively looking for work before receiving benefits.
Inexplicably, Democrats on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee voted to either reject or significantly water down all of the proposals. As a result, we had no meaningful welfare reform during the past session.
This seems to be part of a troubling trend among our friends on the other side of the aisle; to ignore the will of the people of Maine who are fed up with the misspending of tax dollars that are intended to help the truly needy.
There has been some progress within the past month. The DHHS recently began blocking EBT cards from being used at automatic teller machines at prohibited locations around the state such as liquor stores, casinos and strip clubs. This is an enforcement measure of restrictions on EBT cards that were passed by the Republican-led 125th Legislature.
In addition, the DHHS has begun adding photos to EBT cards to prevent them from being sold or used by anyone other than those for whom the cards are intended.
But passing meaningful welfare reform has been nearly impossible over the past year and a half, since the Democrats regained control of the Legislature.
Last year, Democrats in the Maine Senate defeated a bill that would have banned the use of food stamps for junk food items such as chips, soda and candy. Who in their right mind believes that this program, originally intended to prevent people from going hungry, should be used for junk food?
During the end of the most recent legislative session, a member of Democratic leadership declared that welfare fraud is a “victimless crime.” I could not disagree more. The victims are those Maine citizens who go to work every day, pay their taxes and play by the rules, only to see people gaming the system.
If I am fortunate enough to return to the Legislature in January, I will continue to advocate for welfare reform. The Maine taxpayers deserve no less.
— Special to the Press Herald