AUGUSTA – A legislative working group took the first step Friday toward finding a system to automatically block use of electronic benefits cards to buy such prohibited items as beer, lottery tickets or guns. The group is expected to make recommendations to the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee by mid-December.

Earlier this year the Legislature passed new prohibitions on what could be purchased with an EBT card in Maine , including alcohol, tobacco, pornography, lottery tickets or other types of gambling, firearms and ammunition. Lawmakers also prohibited the use of an EBT card for acquiring cash for bail in the case of an arrest.

But legislators also wanted to ensure that when a welfare recipient uses an EBT card at a retail outlet, those prohibited transactions are automatically blocked, similar to the way in which prohibited purchases are now blocked under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, previously known as food stamps.

During Friday’s meeting, Maine Department of Health and Human Services officials told the group that of the $30 million a year the state provides to families through the state and federally funded Temporary Assistance to Needy Families Program, only about $10 million is spent in point-of-sale transactions, in which the state issued EBT card is used like a bank-issued debit card. The other $20 million is taken in the form of cash withdrawals.

Of the $10 million in point-of-sale transactions, about $6.3 million is spent at three of the state’s largest food retailers – Hannaford, Walmart and Shaw’s, DHHS Chief Financial Officer Sam Adolphsen told the panel.

The working panel, which includes four lawmakers, representatives from DHHS, a small market owner and a representative of the Maine Grocers and Food Producers, met for about two hours mainly reviewing the background on how the new ban was working and discussing the possibility of vendors reprogramming their point-of-sale systems to block the sales.

Panel member Joe Douin, who owns Douin’s Market and Cafe in New Sharon, said there has been friction between his employees and customers who try to buy prohibited items – including one man who swept a six-pack of beer off the counter onto the floor.

“And he is done with Douin’s Market,” Douin said. “That’s been our extreme.”

Douin said he has posted signs about the new prohibitions to inform customers, but some still try to violate the rules.

“It would be easier if it was implemented on our cash registers, which the possibility is there,” Douin said. He said it would cost him about $300 to update his point-of-sale system so it would automatically refuse prohibited purchases.

Unable to attend the meeting Friday was the representative of the large grocery retailers in Maine, and the panel seemed to agree it needs to hear from those retailers before moving forward with recommendations.

Some panelists questioned who would pay for upgrades to point-of-sale systems.

David Sorensen, a senior policy advisor for Gov. Paul LePage and DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew’s appointee to the working group, said there was well established precedent for passing the costs of new regulations onto businesses. He seemed to suggest that would likely be the case in implementing the point-of-sale ban.

The panel did not address concerns which surfaced Thursday about whether the meeting was in compliance with the state’s open meetings law. DHHS officials had given only a two-day notice of the meeting, which prompted criticism of the LePage administration’s handling of the notice requirement . The state ombudsman said a two-day notice didn’t seem to satisfy the Freedom of Access Act’s requirement for “ample” notice, and an attorney who handles FOAA cases for the media in Maine said the short notice appeared to be a violation of both the “spirit and the letter” of the law.

Sorensen, who is heading the panel, set a tentative date of Oct. 28 for the working group’s next meeting, at a location that has yet to be determined. A DHHS staff member indicated that the agency would strive to provide proper public notice of that meeting.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

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