Maine Democrats Bending to Public Pressure for Welfare Reform

AUGUSTA, Maine – Democratic lawmakers may be feeling some pressure to take a harder line against welfare fraud following an election cycle that saw Republicans advance in the House and Senate after campaigning on welfare reform.

One Democratic leader has signed on to welfare reform bills, and Republicans have renewed efforts to make it easier to deny benefits to Mainers who don’t play by the rules.

Gov. Paul LePage’s campaign against welfare abuse has been commonly derided by his opponents as a “war on the poor.” But Democrats have discovered that the governor’s message resonates with voters.

A month before the November election, polling showed that more than half of the Mainers surveyed supported LePage’s policies, several of which went down in flames last year at the hands of a Democratically-controlled Legislature.

Now, with GOP advances in the House, and Republicans in control of the Senate, many of the same proposals are up for reconsideration. And Democrats may be having an attitude adjustment.

“I think things have changed in the last two years. I think the voters have spoken loud and clear,” said Sen. Roger Katz, an Augusta Republican, at a committee hearing.

Katz has frequently tried to stake out some middle ground in the highly-charged debate over welfare reform. He was back before the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee Thursday with a bill that would impose new restrictions on the state’s food stamp program.

Katz says welfare reform proposals that take a measured approach to deter abuse are likely to get a better reception from Democrats.

“Welfare reform – that’s sensible welfare reform – is a priority out there,” Katz says. “And I think the Republicans knew it two years ago, and I think the Democrats have realized it now. So I think, for instance, just on my bill to ban junk food for food stamps, I have Democratic sponsors that I didn’t have the last time around on this bill.”

Katz told the committee that his bill, LD 526, ensures that taxpayer dollars will be used for healthy foods instead of soda, chips, candy and other junk food that contributes to obesity, and other health problems, including heart disease and diabetes.

Bethany Hamm, director for the Office of Family Independence at the state Department of Health and Human Services, supports the bill. She said the list of food items purchased with food stamps continues to raise eyebrows at her agency.

“Multiple Red Bulls in one purchase, Rock Star energy drinks, 1-pound bag of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and 3 gallons of Hersey’s Ice Cream in one purchase,” Hamm said. “We have all seen these types of purchases occur – and it’s unacceptable.”

Democratic House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe is among the co-sponsors of Katz’s bill, a proposal he describes as reasonable.

“It’s something that we hear time and time again from folks – that they really want to make sure that folks are getting nutritional food – and this is one approach of doing that,” McCabe said.

But not everyone agrees that Katz’s bill and other proposed welfare reforms are appropriate. Michelle Lamb, the program director for the Preble Street Maine Hunger Initiative in Portland, says Katz’s proposal would discourage those who need benefits the most from participating in the food stamp program.

“Placing restrictions on the food sup program for the purchase of taxable food items would greatly increase stigma and confusion at the grocery store and cause higher rates of food insecurity,” Lamb said.

Still, Katz’s bill is likely to stand a better chance than other “get tough” welfare reform bills that prohibit cash withdrawals using electronic benefit transfer – or EBT – cards, and others that would suspend benefits for trafficking in EBT cards and require photo id’s on replacement cards.

Democratic Leader McCabe says his party is inclined to reject bills that are punitive in nature. “I think that some of these bills, depending on what the penalty aspect is, they have a chance to pass,” McCabe said. “I think for some of us, you know, the penalties that are proposed by Republicans and the administration was a little too Draconian.”

Members of the Health and Human Services Committee have not ruled out merging several aspects of competing welfare reform bills to develop a comprehensive approach to the issue.