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Maine Women's Advocates Challenge Gov's Welfare Fraud Claims
12/18/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Women's advocates are challenging Gov. Paul LePage's claims of welfare abuse in Maine - that recipients are using taxpayers' money to buy alcohol and to gamble at casinos. The governor made the allegation during his weekly radio message while detailing his welfare reform legislation, but offered no documentation or proof to substantiate what his critics have dismissed as wild speculation. A.J. Higgins reports.

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Gov. LePage is calling for those enrolled in the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program - also known as TANF - to prove they had made three attempts to find a job in order to qualify for benefits. That idea isn't new - it had been advanced earlier this year by House Republican Leader Ken Fredette, but the proposed bill was rejected by majority Democrats.

But LePage is drawing criticism for his latest assertions about the misuse of welfare debit cards.

"Too many people use their EBT cards to purchase illegal drugs, alcohol, lottery tickets and cigarettes," LePage said. "They also use them at casinos and other places that have nothing to do with providing the basic necessities to children and families."

LePage made the claims in his weekly radio message, but did not include any official statistics or findings to back them up. House GOP Leader Ken Fredette says he hears the same descriptions of abuse all the time - at least anecdotally.

"Stories abound where people are using these EBT cards, they're using them out of state. Someone has to wonder why a Maine resident is using an EBT card out of state," Fredette says, "but also that they're using these EBT cards to buy cigarettes, to buy alcohol. And I've heard stories down at the court house where people are using their EBT access money to pay criminal fines."

"Everybody has a debit card these days - how can you tell the difference?" says state Sen. Margaret Craven.

State Sen. Margaret Craven, a Lewiston Democrat who co-chairs the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee, says Republicans are simply drawing conclusions based on hearsay in order to bolster their opposition to the TANF program.

And Sharon Barker, the director of the Women's Resource Center at the University of Maine, says there's no reason that such abuses, if true, couldn't be verified. She urges the governor to channel his efforts into making existing welfare-to-work programs more effective.

"Looking for a really effective way to implement these social policies makes a lot more sense than coming up with these fairly extreme sensational ideas that really don't get any solution, that don't really address any kind of demonstrated problem," says Barker.

At the Maine Women's Lobby, executive director Eliza Townsend says programs designed to help Maine's neediest residents have been raided to help LePage pay for tax cuts for wealthier Mainers two years ago.

"Rather than blame Mainers who are struggling to provide for their families, I would encourage the governor to demonstrate leadership by building pathways out of poverty, by focusing on jobs that pay enough to support a family, by ensuring that Mainers have access to health insurance and by ensuring that they have affordable quality child care," Townsend says.

With the governor seeking a second term next year, Robin Merrill, of Maine Equal Justice Partners, says LePage's remarks seemed more like an attempt to energize his conservative base.

"The issue has been overblown," Merrill says, "and I'd say it's often used to gain political points, when we just don't see anything substantiating this as a significant problem that deserves this amount of attention."

Maine House Speaker Mark Eves says Democrats are open to tightening up areas of programs that could be vulnerable to fraud - but he also says federal laws already prohibit the kind of activity the governor has alleged.


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