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Maine Gov to Propose Ban on Welfare Benefits for Drug Felons
01/02/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

Ever since he took office two years ago, Gov. Paul LePage has made no secret that he thinks too many Maine families are living on the dole. He's made welfare reform a cornerstone of his administration and he has had some success and some failure with his proposals. As Susan Sharon reports, low income advocates are bracing for his latest endeavor: a bill to prohibit public assistance for those convicted of felony drug crimes.

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Maine Gov to Propose Ban on Welfare Benefits for D Listen
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Details about the governor's plan have not yet been made public. So far, only the title of the proposed bill has been released. But LR 525 makes the administration's intent clear: It's called "An Act to Make Drug Felons Ineligible for TANF Assistance."

TANF is short for "Temporary Aid to Needy Families." And it's already getting a strong reaction from Sara Gagne Holmes of the low-income advocacy group known as Maine Equal Justice.

"People who have a drug conviction and have gone to jail, have, according to our penal system, served their time and they are ready to move forward," Gagne Holmes says. "So why are we revictimizing the individuals who have already paid their dues?"

Back in the mid-90s, when a "get-tough-on-crime" fervor swept the nation, Congress passed a welfare reform law that denied benefits to convicted drug felons.

Years later states were given the option of lifting that ban. Maine was one of the states that chose to do so. According to a recent report from the Congressional Research Service a dozen states have since joined Maine in opting out of the ban.
More than two dozen other states have imposed conditions for drug felons to receive public assistance. Rochelle Finzel of the National Conference of State Legislatures says modifications of the ban for recipients vary.

"The majority of states have modified it in terms of having some kind of requirement," Finzel says. "Either they be in compliance with their court orders, or they're involved in some sort of a treatment program, or comply with some drug-testing requirements as well."

Finzel says if Maine adopts the administration's latest proposal, it would be in the minority of states. As of last year, only a dozen states kept the ban in its entirety. And of those, Finzel says three states impose the ban only for drug felons who were convicted of distribution.

Under the LePage administration, Maine has attempted to impose mandatory drug testing for convicted drug felons who receive public assistance. But Gagne-Holmes says, so far, the state hasn't been able to figure out how to do the testing, how much it would cost or how it would be funded.

In addition, it's not known exactly how many convicted drug felons receive public assistance. Still, Eliza Townsend of the Maine Women's Lobby says one thing is clear:

"Recipients of temporary assistance to needy families are generally women because the program is just that - it's intended to help people who are unable to take care of themselves and their children," Townsend says. "Before passing this bill I would urge our leaders to consider whether it benefits us all in the long run."

Even if children continue to receive benefits, Townsend says the loss of a parent's contribution can affect the entire family's budget and overall well-being. Advocates also point out that it's already difficult enough for convicted felons to re-enter the job market.

And Shenna Bellows of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine says there's another problem: Both the drug testing requirement for welfare recipients and the ban on welfare benefits for convicted drug felons are potentially unconstitutional.

"Both proposals pose serious constitutional concerns to privacy, due process and equal protection under the law," she says.

Bellows says that is one reason so many states have rejected similar measures. Calls to the governor's office seeking comment for this story were not returned by airtime.



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