AUGUSTA –– Gov. Paul LePage rolled out a familiar proposal Monday to change the state’s welfare system, including restrictions on electronic benefit cards and new job-search requirements for Mainers who apply for assistance.

Democrats either defeated or diluted similar proposals when the party controlled the Legislature last year. The governor made note of that defeat, saying Maine voters had sent a clear message to lawmakers in the November election that more changes were needed.

“It’s the same bill that you’ve heard of before,” LePage said during a news conference at the State House. “But our liberal friends said ‘no.’ They made all sorts of excuses. Well, as you saw in November, the Maine people didn’t buy it. They’re demanding reform, they expect reform and we’re going to give them reform. Now legislators must decide if they want to work with the Maine people or if they want to work for the welfare activists.”

Democrats, who still control the House of Representatives, disputed the claim that they were unwilling to reduce welfare fraud or enhance programs designed to move aid recipients to independence. Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, the House majority leader, said he had tried to work with the administration on bipartisan initiatives, but his efforts were not reciprocated.

He said Democrats were eager to review specifics of the governor’s proposals.

“We certainly hope this isn’t just a regurgitation of last year’s bills,” he said.

‘WEARY OF WELFARE DEPENDENCY’

Details of the legislation were not provided Monday. Instead, the administration offered broad outlines of the initiatives. They are similar to last year’s proposals, which LePage and Republicans used to great effect on the campaign trail.

Senate President Michael Thibodeau, who is sponsoring the governor’s welfare bill, said Maine taxpayers “are growing weary of welfare dependency.”

“The fact of the matter is, too many of us – all too many of us – know stories that aren’t success stories,” Thibodeau said. “We know about the abuse that goes on with the system.”

The governor’s initiatives include prohibiting the use of electronic benefit transfer cards at liquor stores, smoke shops and to purchase lottery tickets through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. He also proposes banning the use of EBT cards to get cash outside Maine, requiring TANF applicants to apply for three jobs before receiving benefits, and strengthening penalties for abusing the system.

EBT cards dispense an array of benefits depending on a card holder’s eligibility, including the purchase of food through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The state already prohibits the use of EBT cards for direct purchases of alcohol, tobacco and lottery tickets.

Critics of the restrictions argue they can be costly and that TANF recipients can still get cash elsewhere and use it to buy liquor and other prohibited items. The administration acknowledged that the cash benefit is untraceable, but argued that the proposed prohibitions could act as a deterrent, and said there may be other initiatives that would restrict the amount of cash that can be withdrawn using an EBT.

LePage said the state had ways to monitor EBT transactions, but he declined to specify how it does so.

“People that want to game the system, will game the system,” LePage said. “We are just talking to retailers (about the prohibitions). I’ll tell you, the retailers we’re talking to are really excited about getting this system to work the way it’s intended to work.”

He added, “Everybody has compassion for those who are having a rough time. We want to help. We just don’t want to be abused.”

RUNDOWN OF LEPAGE PROPOSALS

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 37 states use EBT cards to dispense welfare benefits, and at least 23 have laws restricting how they are used. Nineteen states have adopted pre-benefit work-search requirements.

The efficacy of such changes is widely debated.

In 2012, the Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog agency, reviewed six states with laws restricting use of EBT cards at certain locations, such as liquor stores or casinos. It found that transaction data collected by at least four states did not “contain information that is accurate or detailed enough” to identify whether the cards were used at restricted locations.

Critics say the work-search requirements have reduced Temporary Assistance for Needy Families caseloads, but there is scant evidence that they have helped people find work.

The governor’s welfare reform bill would also prohibit using EBT cards for TANF benefits out of state. Last year, the administration released data showing $14 million in EBT transactions were made out of state in 2013, including at Disney World, in Hawaii and other vacation locations.

But the overall data showed that out-of-state transactions represented less than 2 percent of total cash withdrawals over a three-year period.

Ninety three percent of the $14 million in out-of-state EBT spending was for food stamps – or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – benefits. Leading the list of states in those transactions was neighboring New Hampshire, which accounted for 50 percent. Massachusetts was second at 13 percent, followed by Florida at 7 percent and New York at 3 percent.

McCabe said Monday that lawmakers in districts that border New Hampshire may be reluctant to approve the ban on out-of-state EBT card usage because their constituents may work and shop in that state.

LePage’s proposal also would require nearly all TANF recipients to participate in job training by eliminating most existing exemptions. It also would reduce the current 24-month limit on education and job training for recipients to 12 months. McCabe said Democrats wanted more details about that provision because it appears to contradict the administration’s welfare-to-work ethic and could penalize recipients pursuing college degrees.

DEMOCRATS ALSO SEEK REFORMS

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said Democrats would work with LePage while introducing their own reforms to reduce welfare fraud among both recipients and providers. McCabe has introduced a bill similar to a LePage initiative to ban EBT purchases of alcohol, lottery tickets and tobacco products. Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, has a proposal to improve the effectiveness of anti-fraud programs, particularly those targeting fraudulent providers. He also has proposed creating a tiered-benefit system designed to encourage welfare recipients to find work without losing their benefits.

LePage said Monday that he, too, plans to introduce a tiered-welfare bill.

According to the Attorney General’s Office, the state has prosecuted 83 beneficiary fraud cases since 2010, and taken in $951,000 in court-ordered restitution. During the same period, the AG’s health care fraud unit recovered $69 million from 59 health care providers or pharmaceutical companies for fraud, improper billing or overpayments under MaineCare, the state’s version of Medicaid.

Beneficiary fraud cases increased in 2013 after the administration and Legislature authorized spending an additional $700,000 a year to hire more fraud investigators.