January 24, 2011

Welfare a hot topic in Augusta

By Rebekah Metzler rmetzler@mainetoday.com
MaineToday Media State House Writer

AUGUSTA -- First-year Rep. Stephen Wood, R-Sabattus, was waiting to purchase groceries when he watched a woman receive $30 back from the cashier, after swiping her government-issued electronic benefit card.

PROGRAM DEFINITIONS

• Temporary Assistance to Needy Families — or TANF — is a cash benefit for families with children. Applicants must show the family has a very low-income and the children are deprived of support from at least one parent to be eligible. The parent also has to participate in an education, re-training and work program known as ASPIRE to receive the TANF benefit.
• The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — or SNAP — is the new name of the federal food supplement program formerly known as food stamps. Participants must meet income eligibility requirements and are banned from using the benefit on a variety of items, including alcohol, tobacco and all other nonfood items.

WELFARE REFORM BILLS

From Republicans:
• Rep. Rich Cebra, R-Naples — LR 59, An Act To Enact a 5-point Welfare Reform Program
• Rep. Rich Cebra, R-Naples — LR 78, An Act To Require Drug Testing for Medicaid Recipients with Prescriptions for Scheduled Drugs
• Rep. Rich Cebra, R-Naples – LR 81, An Act To Require an Applicant for State Assistance To Show Proof of Legal Residence in the United States and Proof of Residency for at Least the Previous 90 Days in This State
• Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport — LR 562, An Act To Establish a Residency Requirement To Receive State Assistance
• Rep. Douglas Damon, R-Bangor — LR 643, An Act To Improve Anti-fraud Efforts in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program
• Rep. Stacey Guerin, R-Glenburn — LR 882, An Act To Impose a 60-month Lifetime Maximum on the Receipt of Welfare Benefits
• Rep. Stacey Guerin, R-Glenburn — LR 883, An Act To Establish a Work or Volunteer Service Requirement for Welfare Recipients
• Rep. Stacey Guerin, R-Glenburn — LR 884, An Act To Impose a 90-day Residency Requirement in Order To Receive Welfare
• Rep. Meredith Strang Burgess, R-Cumberland — LR 1069, An Act To Build Accountability into the General Assistance Laws
• Rep. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden — LR 1261, An Act To Improve the General Assistance Program
• Sen. Rodney Whittemore, R-Skowhegan — LR 1839, Resolve, to Require the Department of Health and Human Services To Request a Waiver To Limit the Foods That May Be Purchased Using Food Stamps

From Democrats:
• Rep. Jon Hinck, D-Portland — LR 39, An Act To Reform Maine’s Welfare System
• Rep. John Tuttle, D-Sanford — LR 251 An Act To Establish a Public Service Workfare Component of the Food Supplement Program
• Rep. Maegan Maloney, D-Augusta — LR 488, An Act To Reform Welfare
• Rep. Peter Stuckey, D-Portland — LR 1292, An Act To Establish Standards for the Administration of the General Assistance Program
• Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland — LR 1724, An Act To Encourage the Use of Electronic Benefit Transfer Funds at Farmer's Markets
• Rep. Alex Cornell Du Houx, D-Brunswick — LR 1748, An Act To Require Community Service under Certain Circumstances
• Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston – LR 1813, Resolve, To Create a Working Group To Make Recommendations To Improve the Efficiency, Accountability and Proper Administration of the General Assistance Program
• Sen. Nancy Sullivan, D-Biddeford – LR 1886, An Act To Create More Client-level Accountability in the General Assistance Program

Minutes later, he said, he saw the same woman at a nearby gas station.

"I got my gas, went inside and this woman was purchasing a 12-pack, cigarettes and lottery tickets," he said. "I don't begrudge anybody smoking, I used to smoke a long time ago and I still enjoy a good cigar. But I don't think the state should be paying for alcohol or tobacco products or lottery tickets. That I have a problem with."

Vows by the new governor and Legislature to reform welfare have actors on all sides now prepping for public debate.

Republican lawmakers have submitted a flurry of bills to alter how the state administers its welfare programs, from imposing time limits for eligibility to establishing residency requirements before receiving services.

Meanwhile, advocacy groups are poised to release new studies about Mainers who are dependent on welfare to combat what they say are falsehoods about the programs, based on misleading anecdotes, instead of the full facts.

Based on his experience, Wood has proposed legislation, LD 75, to prevent people from taking cash out against their food supplement benefits.

Federal law, however, already bars people from withdraw cash against their benefits -- if they receive food stamps.

People who receive a cash assistance benefit, however, like the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, are allowed to use their electronic benefit card to take out cash.

The two programs are funded through federal block grants, reducing the benefit or its enrollees would not result in savings for Maine taxpayers. The total TANF grant has also not been increased since its inception in 1996.

Wood said it does not matter whether it comes from the federal or state budget -- it's all taxpayer money.

"Which pocket are you taking the money out of? You taking the money out of my right pocket or my left pocket? It's still going to the state or the feds. It's still taxpayer money," he said.

Steven Bowen, a senior policy adviser for LePage, previously worked at the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative think tank that has strongly advocated for welfare reform.

"There's just a sense that no one is minding the store, just generally speaking, and I think that's a concern you are going to hear in what the administration puts forward," Bowen said. "(LePage's) real goal is to make it so people who need that benefit can get it to get on their feet, get themselves together and get the education training they need and get out of the system. That's going to be the challenge."

Bowen said administration officials are also convinced there needs to be a "culture change" at the Department of Health and Human Services.

"The goal is not to maximize enrollment, the goal is to give people the resources they need to get people back on their feet and become productive citizens, and that doesn't seem to be the goal at DHHS," he said. "One of the reason why finding a DHHS commissioner that the governor is comfortable with is taking longer than some people seem to think it should, is because that position is so critically important to that culture piece."

Another senior LePage adviser, Mary Mayhew, was recently nominated for DHHS' top post. Mayhew previously served as president of the Maine Hospital Association for 11 years and has vowed to lead the agency in a new direction.

"Everyone agrees (DHHS) must be held more accountable to families and taxpayers," she said at a press conference last week.

(Continued on page 2)

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