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Maine House Rejects Restrictions on TANF Debit Cards
06/17/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

The Maine House today rejected a bill that would have prohibited poor families from using state benefits to buy tobacco or alcohol products. Republicans failed to garner enough votes for passage, but they did manage to attract some Democratic support. A.J. Higgins reports.

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At the center of Monday's debate: the state benefit program known commonly as TANF.

"This is TANF -- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families," said Rep. Deborah Sanderson. "This money should not be used for alcohol. This money should not be used for tobacco products."

Sanderson, a Chelsea Republican, voiced the opinion of many House GOP members, who believe that TANF recipients should also be required to retain a year's worth of receipts of all their purchases with TANF electronic debit cards, in the event the state Department of Health and Human Services chooses to conduct a random audit.

Sanderson says that, right now, DHHS staff has limited ability to determine what TANF recipients are doing with the debit card purchases.

'If there's someone who may be in question, they can take a look at how they're spending this money to make sure that we're spending our benefit dollars, our assistance dollars, wisely for the folks who really need it the most," she said. "That's the argument we've been having here all year. We want to make sure folks get help, we want to make sure that they the services and the support that they need. But we want to make sure that it's done appropriately."

But for many House Democrats, the Republican-led effort to restrict the use of the federally-funded debit cards seemed like a solution in search of a problem. Rep. Richard Farnsworth of Portland says most of the members of his Health and Human Services Committee thought the bill was simply unnecessary.

"The TANF allocation is generally used predominantly just to cover rent," Farnsworth said. "It isn't a huge amount, and as a result, the $485 or so would certainly be quickly eaten up by any rent."

And Farnsworth told his fellow House members that requiring recipients to retain purchase records seems excessive. "This becomes an extraordinary burden for the recipients, many of whom -- I'm sure, as some of us -- have trouble managing the receipts and that sort of thing on an annual basis," Farnsworth said.

Rep. Lance Harvell, a Republican from Farmington, said since business owners in Maine are required to maintain receipts for their deductions, it only seems appropriate to expect the same of those receiving state benefits.

"Anybody that's ever been through, and done, their taxes knows this: You have to record many (sic) of your information," Harvell said. "If you can use an EBT card in a store, they can print a receipt. We help those, but those receiving aid owe nothing in return. And at some point, it has to stop."

Rep. Brian Jones, a Freedom Democrat, says that as a town selectman, he knows a number of general assistance recipients who are quite familiar with the process of maintaining receipts. He and a group of other Democrats, support the attempt at greater accountability.

"It's a worthy goal, it's a worthy effort," Jones said, "and I think it would put some of our citizens who may, indeed, be abusing this system on record."

But other lawmakers argued that it was impractical to expect TANF recipients to maintain a year's worth of receipt purchases, and even less realistic to expect DHHS staff to take on the role of program auditors, when department supervisors are reporting that they lack sufficient funding to perform the tasks already expected of them.

The House voted the minority report down 74-66, but supportes hope the Senate might keep the purchase restrictions alive.


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