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Maine GOP Rallys for Welfare Overhaul Bills at Statehouse
04/04/2014   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Maine's attorney general has jumped into the partisan stand-off over welfare reform, suggesting that rather than pass new laws against fraud, that the state would be better served to enforce what's already on the books. Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, clamored for tougher regulations as they rallied outside the statehouse.

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Gov. Paul LePage has sharply criticized House members who've stood in the way of his welfare fraud reform effort. But Maine Attorney General Janet Mills said the state doesn't actually need to toughen the law.

"No judge has yet said to us, Janet, you can't prosecute this fraud case because you don't have the right laws," Mills said. "We don't need any more laws in place. We have the laws in place."

Mills, a former Democratic lawmaker herself, said the LePage administration has already beefed up the number of fraud investigators over the past three years and that while many of the 17 examiners are productive.

"Some of them haven't sent us a single case," Mills said.

Mills said she aggressiveLY prosecutes all of the cases that are referred to her office by DHHS, But said in 2011, the state filed 12 indictments or complaints alleging fraud, resulting in 10 pleas or convictions. Three years later the number had climbed to 31 complaints and 13 convictions. The administration is now pushing bills that would restrict where and how recipients can use the benefits, and also require recipients to show proof they had searched for a job before they could qualify. He would end the so-called "Parents as Scholars" program that allows college-enrolled parents to continue receiving benefits. LePage also wants to ban the use of electronic benefit transfer cards outside of Maine that he said is contributing to $14 million worth of potential welfare abuse annually. Attorney General Mills said that rather than call press conferences to politicize his suspicions, LePage needs to get his people to work.

"If the department or this governor believes that somebody is actually living in another state and using an EBT card issued in Maine, bring it on and send us the case and we'll prosecute because it's a violation of law now," Mills said.

Some lawmakers in both parties have attempted to tighten up the state's use of EBT cards. Rep. Sharri MacDonald, an Old Orchard Beach Republican, sponsored an amendment that would have made it illegal to use EBT card to purchase alcohol, tobacco, lottery tickets or to post bail. It would also impose penalties for violators. Majority Democrats in the House rejected the measure. They also gave thumbs down to a compromise from Assistant House Democratic Leader Jeff McCabe which matched MacDonald's amendment but did not include any penalties for first-time violators.

"I actually went out on a limb by bringing that amendment forward," McCabe said.

McCabe got a cold reception from fellow Democrats, who voted against his proposal. During a GOP rally showing support for the governor's welfare bills, MacDonald described the effort as a face-saving measure for Democrats.

"It was a fraudulent compromise and I'm not particularly happy with talking this way about my fellow representatives, but really it was all fraud, look at the votes," MacDonald said. "So they're going to go home to their constituents and said, you know what, we tried, we tried to do welfare reform and they're going to be on record to do that, but it was a weak bill."

When Republicans failed to support the measure, Democrats also saw no reason to back the plan which failed 111-33. Debate on the welfare bills moves to the Maine Senate Monday where additional compromise amendments are expected.

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