Amended welfare bill rejected by House
Augusta — The House of Representatives rejected an amended welfare reform bill that would lessen penalties for misuse of benefit funds.
The original bill, LD 1822, proposed by Gov. Paul LePage, prohibits electronic benefits transfer, or EBT cards, from being used for gambling, alcohol, tobacco, lottery tickets, and bail. The penalties called for the first offense to be a loss of services for one year, the second offense, loss of services for two years, and the third offense is a lifetime ban from receiving benefits from the state's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
A family of three receives about $485 a month through the program. EBT cards hold food stamp money which is federally-funded and TANF benefits, which is a cash assistance program. TANF is a state-funded program.
As TANF is a cash program, it is difficult to prove what the money is spent on, and also difficult to enforce, say democrats.
The amended version of the bill, first approved in the Senate April 7 but rejected by the House April 8, altered the penalties for the first violation to a warning letter, the second violation is loss of services for up to three months and the third violation is a loss of service up to six months.
Local representatives, Chuck Kruger, D-Thomaston, Joan Welsh, D-Rockport, Jeff Evangelos, I-Friendship, Lizzie Dickerson, D-Rockland, and Ellen Winchenbach, R-Waldoboro, voted down the amendment.
The House rejected the amended version by a vote of 119 to 26. The House did narrowly advance a bill April 8 that would prohibit the use of EBT cards at smokeshops by a vote of 72 to 70. Representatives also approved directing the Department of Health and Human Services to conduct a study of the reported misuse of funds.
Assistant House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe said the amendment was proposed to educate people about what is and what is not accepted with TANF money, and subsequent steps are penalties. He added many people on the program are single mothers, seeking refuge from domestic violence. He urged fellow House members to think about the people on the program.
Kenneth Fredette, the House Republican Leader from Newport, said the amendment does not constitute real reform, and said the compromise only waters down penalties.
"We can maintain the status quo or have real reform. The state is looking for real reform, not a feel good bill," he said on the floor of the House.
Rep. Deb Sanderson, R-Chelsea said Republicans are not trying to demonize the poor, just the users who abuse the system. She said when people are admitted into the TANF program, they are given instructions on how to use the benefits and enter into a contract with the state to use the services properly. She said people already know not to use their cards at casinos and strip clubs.
"We need language in a statute to back that up," Sanderson said.
Arguments also centered around the language of the bill, from may to shall. Fredette said shall is more definitive wording, aimed at directing store owners from not accepting welfare money form prohibited items.
Rep. Lizzie Dickerson, D-Rockland said she would not support the amended bill because if services are taken away from individuals abusing the system, their children would ultimately be hurt.
One representative, during the discussion on the floor, said 99.8 percent of people receiving TANF benefits were in compliance. He said the debate was not about the two-tenths of a percent who were abusing it, it was about distracting people from other issues.
Courier Publications reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 118 or via email at email@example.com.