AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage unveiled a package of proposed welfare changes Tuesday that seek to put into law the executive actions his administration has made to tighten access to assistance programs while beefing up work requirements.

Several of the proposals outlined by LePage were introduced as bills in the past but have failed in the Legislature in the face of opposition from Democrats and advocates for low-income Mainers.

Flanked by Republican lawmakers, LePage said his administration’s policy changes are deterring fraud, reducing state spending and helping Mainers transition out of welfare.

“They can also be reversed by the next governor, and that is why it is so important to make these common-sense reforms in state law,” LePage said.

The proposed policy changes in the governor’s Welfare Reform for Increased Security and Employment Act, or RISE, include:

• Requiring 20 hours of work or vocational training weekly for able-bodied adults receiving assistance.

• Placing photographs on electronic benefit transfer – EBT – cards.

• Limiting households to 36 months of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families down from the current 60-month cap.

• Imposing a $5,000 asset limit on childless households receiving food assistance.

• Banning “repeat felony drug offenders” from food assistance.

• Disqualifying all adults in a household from receiving assistance if one member is convicted of welfare fraud or theft.

• Discontinuing assistance to people who win $5,000 or more in the lottery or by gambling.

“These reforms have restored confidence in Maine’s welfare system for the taxpayers who fund it,” LePage said. “Mainers across the political spectrum support these reforms, ranging from Democrats who don’t want welfare cash fueling the drug trade to Republicans who want to see able-bodied people going to work.”

Myrna Koonce of Brunswick and others who attended a faith-based advocacy event gather near the governor’s office holding placards reading, “I support a moral budget.” She said “a moral budget supports the most vulnerable among us and we certainly don’t believe the governor’s budget accomplishes that.”

DEMOCRATS CALL REFORMS DAMAGING

Many of the proposals are expected to encounter strong opposition, once again, from Democrats and advocates who say LePage’s welfare changes during the past six years have only hurt many low-income families and children.

Democrats were quick to point out that child poverty rates and infant mortality rates have actually increased in Maine in recent years. LePage’s final two-year, $6.8 billion budget plan also contains controversial proposals to eliminate welfare benefits for some immigrants and to reduce the rolls of MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program.

“These so-called ‘reforms’ by the administration have created lasting damage,” said Rep. Patty Hymanson, D-York, a physician who co-chairs the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, in a written statement. “We’ve driven children and families deeper into poverty, increased childhood hunger, and removed basic health care from struggling families. If this is what their definition of reform looks like, I’m not interested in expanding them any further.”

As the governor’s news conference wrapped up, several dozen attendees of a faith-based advocacy event gathered outside his office holding small placards reading, “I support a moral budget.”

“This RISE proposal is helping no one rise,” said the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh, dean of St. Luke’s Cathedral in Portland and an organizer of Interfaith Advocacy Days, which bring religious leaders and participants from various faiths to the State House. “What we’ve seen is a decline in the care for children, for seniors and for others in need. We represent faith communities that believe our faith needs to be put into action, and we understand that there is a budget surplus so these cuts are not necessary.”

ACTIONS TIGHTENED WELFARE ELIGIBILITY

LePage has made welfare reform a cornerstone of his two terms and both of his campaigns, and has had success at changing rules and eligibility requirements for programs such as Medicaid, food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Although lawmakers approved some of those changes, LePage also has used his executive authority to effect other changes to the safety net programs used by hundreds of thousands of low-income Mainers.

For instance, the administration now requires able-bodied adults to work, volunteer or receive vocational training to obtain food assistance. The LePage administration says those work requirements have led to a 114 percent wage increase for those participating.

“It’s federal law,” LePage said of the work requirement for TANF recipients, which previous governors have waived. “We didn’t invent anything. We are just following federal law.”

DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew speaks at Tuesday’s news conference. She and Gov. Paul LePage spoke about welfare “dependency” and welfare fraud. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

The LePage administration also instituted a voluntary system for adding photos to electronic benefit transfer cards as a way to discourage fraud. The governor had wanted to make the photos mandatory, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture under former President Barack Obama rejected that request in 2013. It was unclear Tuesday exactly what LePage’s bill would propose for EBT card photos. However, the governor already is renewing several requests to the Trump administration that were rejected by the Obama administration.

Notably, there were no Democrats standing behind LePage during his late-morning news conference. Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, the House minority leader, noted that the governor was re-elected in 2014 and that his party maintained control of the Maine Senate in 2016.

“If people don’t think these policies mean something, well they mean something to people at the polls,” Fredette said. “And I think they rewarded us by sending us back to continue on this path.”

But Joby Thoyalil, a policy analyst with Maine Equal Justice Partners, portrayed LePage policies as moving the state in the wrong direction by denying assistance to people who need it.

“We think that his welfare reform policies have not achieved any of the goals of reducing poverty,” said Thoyalil, whose organization is a legal aid nonprofit heavily involved in policy debates that affect low-income Mainers. “In fact, Maine has been headed in the wrong direction over the past six years. Over the last five years, the share of children living in deep poverty in Maine has increased at a rate eight times faster than the rest of the nation. While in the rest of the nation hunger has gone down, it’s gone up in Maine.”

WELFARE FRAUD MAKES PARENT ‘UNFIT’

LePage and Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew also spoke repeatedly of welfare “dependency” and welfare fraud, two favorite topics for the Republican governor. In 2016, the DHHS referred 174 criminal cases to the Maine Attorney General’s Office alleging more than $1.7 million in fraud or theft. Those resulted in 37 cases in which recipients were ordered to pay more than $500,000 in restitution, the Attorney General’s Office said.

One of the administration’s proposals would deny Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to all adults in a household if any member is convicted of welfare fraud. LePage went even further in his comments, suggesting that anyone convicted of welfare fraud is an “unfit parent” and “those parents should not have those children, period.”

“I believe that if they can’t be taken care of properly in the household, then they need to be under the care of the state,” LePage said. “I think incompetent people, fraudulent people who are breaking the law deliberately, should not have those children in the home. That’s how I personally feel.”

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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