Friday January 10, 2014 | 09:59 AM

Pivot: Democratic leaders have whipped up a new slogan to address the LePage administration's recent claim that thousands of EBT cards were used at smoke shops, liquor stores and strip clubs. Prosecute, don't politicize.

The slogan wasn't in the letter that Senate President Justin Alfond and House Speaker Mark Eves sent Thursday to the Office of the Attorney General, but that appeared to be the subtext. If the LePage administration has uncovered misuse of EBT transactions, Alfond and Eves wrote, then the state should prosecute. 

The number of questionable transactions is approximately less than two-tenths of a percent of the total EBT withdrawals, but Alfond and Eves said, "We cannot tolerate the abuse of these critical programs, no matter how small the amount." 

They also took a bit of swipe at the Department of Health and Human Services, which the letter noted, owned most of the responsibility to combat abuse and had received additional funding and manpower to weed it out and enforce integrity laws. The latter included the 2012 law signed by Gov. Paul LePage that prohibited EBT transactions in certain locations, such as liquor stores, bars and strip joints. Some Democrats have blamed the administration for not adequately enforcing that law (LePage vowed to do better).

The letter is an interesting pivot for Democrats, who typically play defense on welfare fraud. While Democrats often say fraud should be prosecuted, they also talk up its supposedly low rate of occurrence. That's a difficult balance because talking up low occurrence rates brings them dangerously close to denial or indifference, neither of which is politically popular.

Republicans don't have to worry about that. They're against fraud. Boom. Done.

By challenging the administration to submit prosecutions to the AG on the EBT misuse, Democrats get a wee bit closer to that Republican position without abandoning their support for public assistance programs.

Additionally, prosecutions on the EBT issue won't be easy, particularly in those instances where an EBT cardholder uses an ATM at a cash-only bar. There appears to be some ambiguity in the law about who is culpable for such a transaction; the cardholder or the bar owner. If it's the bar owner, then that raises the question of how they're expected to police ATM use. Presumably patrons are not going to be too fond of a bouncer looking over their shoulder while they're withdrawing cash. 

Remember: The feds say it's not what you buy with welfare cash benefits, it's where you buy it. From the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "... the federal law does not require a state to prevent a recipient from buying beer at a grocery store, but it does require that a state implement policies and practices to prevent any purchase involving an electronic transfer of TANF cash assistance, even non-alcoholic items, from a liquor store."

That's what makes the EBT issue so complicated. It's cash, and cardholders can withdraw that anywhere and buy pretty much what they want. It's a big difference from food stamps (which are also loaded onto EBT cards), which prohibit the purchase of items like liquor and cigarettes.

The boss wants to see those DMs: There will be a few interesting public hearings and work sessions next week, including the bill to expand Medicaid. But there's also L.D. 1194, a bill sponsored by Rep. Michael McClellan, R-Raymond, that would prohibit employers and school administrators from obtaining login information of employees and students for social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, an employer or school official can lawfully request the passwords, then access everything in a person’s account, "including private messages and content that the individual has chosen to share selectively."

Additionally, the ACLU says, a growing number of employers and schools are demanding that job applicants, employees and students hand over the passwords to their private social media accounts. 

McClellan's bill was held over from last session, but it's another proposal that addresses evolving issues with online privacy. The work session will be held Tuesday.

Charts, graphs: The long-awaited first installment of the Alexander Group report will be presented at the Department of Health and Human Services Friday. Gary Alexander, the former welfare director in Pennsylvania, will be there.

According to LePage, Alexander was the governor's first pick for DHHS commissioner. The governor told selected reporters last month that Alexander turned down the job in 2010 for salary reasons. On Friday, Alexander will present part of his $925,000 study alongside Mary Mayhew, who has been the governor's DHHS chief since 2011.

It's unclear how much of the Alexander Medicaid expansion feasibility study the administration will make public. The administration has come under fire for withholding the Medicaid report for nearly four weeks, drawing a rebuke from Attorney General Janet Mills. Members of the press, including the Portland Press Herald, have requested all of the documents through the Freedom of Access Act, not just the finished product of charts and graphs that will likely be presented Friday. 

Additionally, two elements of the study – an analysis of Maine’s welfare programs and an overhaul plan for Medicaid – were due Dec. 20, according to the Alexander Group contract. Neither of those two elements is expected to be released Friday. As of Friday, John Martins, a DHHS spokesman, still had not responded to a request asking whether state officials have received those studies.

The Portland Press Herald has requested those portions of the study under the Freedom of Access Act, which requires officials to cite a provision in the law that allows the state to withhold the documents.

Budget briefing: Democratic leaders are holding a press briefing today about the status of the supplemental budget, which the Appropriations Committee will be digging into to fill what could be a $100 million gap. 

Gov. Paul LePage has said that he won't submit a supplemental budget proposal, which means lawmakers will be doing most of the heavy lifting.

Additionally, an administrative law judge recently denied the state's appeal of the federal decision to strip $20 million in federal funding from the Riverview Psychiatric Center. That means lawmakers and state officials will likely have to come up with a different solution to regain the federal dollars that currently make up more than half the hospital's operating budget.

Non-political item:  

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Steve Mistler covers politics and government for the Portland Press Herald. He spends a lot of time in the hallways of the State House.

Steve can be reached at 791-6345 or smistler@pressherald.com.
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