AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage on Thursday defended his administration’s proposals aimed at reducing fraud and abuse in the state’s welfare system and pledged to preserve the safety net for those who truly need it.

Proposals the Republican governor recently said he will push next session, such as banning the use of electronic benefit transfer cards for alcohol, drugs and other items, have come under fire from Democrats and advocacy groups, who say the governor should focus his efforts on real solutions to help the poor.

But LePage said those attacking the measures don’t realize the extent to which benefits are being misused in Maine. He said last year law enforcement seized 14 benefit cards in drug-related activity and 24 this year.

“We are looking to make sure that the most needy have a safety net so they can live their lives here in Maine comfortably and with the support of our state,” he told reporters. “That’s what it’s intended for. It is not intended to be used for extracurricular activities.”

Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves of North Berwick said LePage’s welfare reform effort is strictly about scoring political points going into an election year.

“We have 1 in 4 kids under the age of 5 living in poverty,” he said. “That’s a problem and that’s a result of the governor’s failed policies. It’s nothing more than election-year politics. It’s unfortunate that he can’t come forward with real solutions.”

Eves said Democrats agree that EBT cards shouldn’t be used for things like alcohol and cigarettes and will consider the measure to see what changes need to be made. But he called the governor’s focus on the issue an example of “stereotyping and sensationalizing” instead of looking for solutions.

LePage said Thursday that his administration is spearheading a major investigation into how EBT cards are being used in the state. He’s also seeking to get photos on EBT cards and considering putting limits on the use of Mainers’ cards in other states.

Adrienne Bennett, a spokeswoman for the governor, said the administration is reviewing data highlighting the extent of the problem in Maine, but can’t release that information until the review is complete.

“It’s a major problem, far bigger than I would have ever have imagined,” LePage said.

Besides the measures on EBT cards, the governor said earlier this week that he’s proposing two bills next session that would require able-bodied people to show they’ve applied for three jobs to get benefits in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and change some exceptions for participation in welfare work-search programs.

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