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Gov. LePage: EBT Cards Used to Buy Alcohol, Tobacco
01/07/2014   Reported By: Susan Sharon

Gov. Paul LePage has released what he says is evidence of more than 3,000 transactions involving the misuse of welfare benefits on state-issued EBT cards. EBT stands for electronic benefits transfer. The transactions took place at smoke shops, taverns, liquor stores and even at a strip club, where EBT cards appear to have been used at an ATM for cash withdrawals. But critics say the governor is sensationalizing the problem. Susan Sharon reports.

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Congress has passed legislation that prohibits welfare recipients from using their benefit cards to buy alcohol or tobacco, and Maine has followed suit. Almost two years ago, Gov. LePage signed a bill into law to prohibit the use of EBT cards in bars and smokeshops where alcohol and tobacco account for at least 50 percent of sales, and in businesses that provide adult entertainment.

"We all know that welfare benefits should be used for the necessities, and for families and children," says Adrienne Bennett, a spokesperson for the governor.

Bennett says that since January, 2012 more than 3,000 transactions were made at more than 22 smokeshops in Maine, which sell primarily tobacco products. There are several other examples of individuals using their EBT cards to spend hundreds of dollars at a time at liquor stores in Maine, and to get cash at an ATM at an exotic dance club in Portland.

Bennett says the governor will introduce legislation to crack down on such abuse.

"Gov. LePage believes we need a quality safety net for our most vulnerable citizens, but the system needs improvements," Bennett says. "We need to eliminate this type of abuse, and we also need to better comply with federal standards so Maine isn't forced to pay millions of dollars in fines."

House Speaker Mark Eves says Democrats will continue to support good-faith efforts to crack down on fraud and abuse. But Eves says since state law already prohibits EBT cards from being used at liquor stores, it's time for the governor to take action.

"Is he going to prosecute this if there is fraud, or is he going to politicize it?" Eves says. "If there is fraud he has a responsibility to move forward and prosecute, and not just have press releases and statements and politicize it."

In response, Bennett says the LePage administration has been very clear on this question: Last year eight new welfare fraud investigators were hired, and the Fraud Investigation and Recovery Unit investigated more than 2,600 complaints of fraud.

"We are going to prosecute welfare abuse and fraud, and we have been doing that and we have increased those numbers over the past three years," Bennett says.

But when it comes to the numbers, Chris Hasted of the Maine Equal Justice Project says everyone ought to look at the big picture. Her organization advocates for low income Mainers, and works to find solutions to poverty. She points out that there are hundreds of thousands of EBT transactions in Maine every year. The number of transactions listed on the governor's press release as evidence of fraud, she says, is well under one percent.

"It's an effort to sort of sensationalize issues related to public assistance, without ever proposing any real solutions to helping this group of famlies that will make a real difference in the lives of these families," Hasted says.

Hasted says the fraud problem has already been addressed by the legislation signed by Gov. LePage and only recently implemented. Other states, she says, have put some of the onus on proprietors for accepting illegal EBT cards. Adrienne Bennett of the governor's office says that may become part of the conversation.

Meantime, House Republican Leader Ken Fredette issued a statement saying he was disappointed but not surprised by the governor's findings. Fredette says the data support legislation he's recently sponsored to bring more accountability to cash welfare benefits.


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