January 13

Democratic leaders take position on EBT misuse

They say prosecute, don’t politicize the issue.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Democratic leaders have whipped up a new slogan to address the LePage administration’s recent claim that thousands of Electronic Benefits Transfer 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 less than two-tenths of 1 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 a swipe at the Department of Health and Human Services, which, they 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.

Also, 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.” TANF, a federal program, stands for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

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 such as liquor and cigarettes.


There will be a few interesting public hearings and work sessions this week, including the bill to expand Medicaid, which in Maine is called MaineCare. 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.

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