While several welfare reform efforts in the Legislature were defeated this past session, the emotionally charged debate over how public benefits are distributed in Maine is almost certain to resume when lawmakers resume work next year.

One area that could attract renewed attention is how to combat what appears to be an increasing trend of electronic benefit transfer cards showing up in drug trafficking investigations.

The Lewiston Sun Journal reported Monday that the phenomenon is becoming more common, citing a January 2014 criminal case in which drug agents seized six EBT cards from a suspected dealer.

The story said that drug agents seized a total of 40 cards over an 11-month period in 2014 and early 2015, according to the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency.

Although state officials say the problem of EBT cards being used in drug deals is increasing, they did not provide data detailing how much EBT fraud was rising, so it’s not clear how widespread the problem is. The 40 cards seized in 2014 and 2015 represent less than 1 percent of the more than 100,000 EBT cards issued in Maine.

MDEA officials did not respond to requests for comment Monday and the Department of Health and Human Services does not track EBT card seizures.

Assistant House Minority Leader Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, said she is not surprised that EBT cards are showing up in drug seizures.

“Desperate people do desperate things,” she said.

Espling said the problem underscores the need for the state to continue reforming its welfare system to make sure benefits are only going to recipients who follow the rules. Among those efforts, she said, could be requiring photo IDs, something that is already done voluntarily.

DEMOCRAT URGES CAUTION

But Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, House chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said he’s worried that anecdotal evidence can lead to sweeping reform efforts that end up punishing all recipients.

“I don’t think anyone wants benefits to be used for anything they are not supposed to be used for, but none of these measures get to the basic root of the problem,” he said.

EBT cards are debit cards issued to recipients of public benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

SNAP, commonly known as food stamps, is limited to food. TANF is a cash benefit that can be used for a variety of household items and is available to households with children.

The number of Mainers receiving both SNAP and TANF benefits has dropped considerably over the last five years, in large part because of efforts by Gov. Paul LePage and others to make it more difficult to receive assistance.

In July 2011, there were 253,016 people receiving food stamps and 24,476 receiving TANF benefits, including children.

This July, the number of food stamp recipients dropped to 201,699 and those on TANF dropped to 9,477.

In addition to reducing welfare rolls, the LePage administration has stepped up fraud investigations and doubled the number of DHHS investigators.

In 2010, before LePage took office, the Attorney General’s Office prosecuted six fraud cases out of 10 referrals. Last year, the AG’s office prosecuted 27 cases out of 81 referrals and so far this year, it has prosecuted 35 of 67 cases, according to DHHS spokesman David Sorensen.

LEPAGE SEEKS MORE REFORM

The governor, however, said more work needs to be done to reform the welfare system.

In June, he blasted lawmakers for killing several welfare-related bills in a series of close votes. Among the bills killed were L.D. 607, which would have required all replacement EBT cards carry a photo ID, strengthened the penalties for trafficking an EBT card and presumed that any EBT card found in the possession of someone arrested for a drug offense was being trafficked for drugs; L.D. 1407, which would have allowed DHHS to drug-test TANF recipients; L.D. 1035, which would have put a nine-month cap on General Assistance; and L.D.1037, which would have established a six-month residency requirement for welfare benefits.

L.D. 607, sponsored by Rep. Wayne Parry, R-Arundel, directly addressed the problem of EBT cards used in drug trafficking, but even some Republicans balked at that bill, Gattine said. Parry said the biggest complaint about his bill was the presumption that cards found during drug seizures had been sold by benefits recipients to purchase drugs.

But he said his bill deserves another chance.

“Every time there is a drug bust, it seems like there is a stack of cards,” he said. “If they can afford drugs, then we don’t need to be supplying them extra money.”

Robyn Merrill, executive director of the nonprofit Maine Equal Justice Partners, which advocates for low-income Mainers, said stories about the misuse of EBT cards in drug trafficking often make assumptions about welfare recipients that may not be true.

“Who’s to say the person receiving benefits did something wrong in these instances?” she said. “We don’t even know how the dealers ended up with these cards.”

BILLS CARRIED OVER

Three welfare-related bills were carried over into the next session:

L.D. 885, which would require the Department of Health and Human Services to determine the eligibility for benefits of recipients of state assistance on an annual basis.

L.D. 1097, which would prohibit use of EBT cards outside of Maine (with the exception of New Hampshire), limit cash withdrawals to less than 25 percent of monthly benefits and outlaw purchases of alcohol, tobacco, lottery tickets and other items.

L.D. 1238, which would attempt to further limit the impact of the so-called “welfare cliff” by providing incentives to individuals who work more hours.

Espling, who sponsored L.D. 885, said welfare reform is the one issue that lawmakers hear about most from constituents.

“We won’t stop fighting for this,” she said. “It is frustrating to see Democrats call this anecdotal because we know that’s not true.”

She said mandated photo IDs on EBT cards is a good step but shouldn’t be the only step. Already, 33,000 EBT cards have photos on them, Sorensen said, or about 1 in 4.

Gattine said Democrats want to be at the table on welfare reform, too, but he thinks the approach by the LePage administration and the governor’s allies has been too focused on demonizing welfare recipients.

Requiring photo IDs is a waste of money and wouldn’t solve the problem, he said, noting that cards can only have one photo but can be used be multiple people within a household.

“If it did, we’d see photos on all our credit cards and debit cards,” Gattine said.

 


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