- Associated Press - Thursday, April 3, 2014

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - Maine’s Democratic-led House dealt a major blow to Gov. Paul LePage’s welfare overhaul proposals on Thursday by advancing scaled-back versions of measures that place restrictions on electronic benefit transfer cards and rejecting bills to beef up work-search requirements.

The Republican governor’s welfare proposals have become a priority for his administration this session but have deeply divided lawmakers in a contentious debate over the scope of the abuse of benefits designed to help low-income residents pay for food and other necessities.

Democrats have framed LePage’s welfare efforts as an election-year stunt that would harm struggling families. But his administration says lawmakers are standing in the way of common-sense reforms supported by residents who don’t want to see their taxpayer dollars go to waste.

“Mainers are rightfully outraged that their hard-earned tax dollars are being abused, and they know these liberals are out of touch with reality,” LePage said in a statement. “Once again, they are playing politics instead of doing what’s right for the Maine people.”

The House endorsed a measure Thursday that would add smoke shops to the list of places where EBT cards are already banned, like liquor stores, and require recipients to sign a form confirming that they understand where the benefits can be used. It replaces LePage’s original proposal to bar the use of the cards in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program to buy liquor, cigarettes and lottery tickets.

Democrats say it would be nearly impossible to enforce what recipients buy after they use the cards to withdrawal cash from ATMs. But GOP lawmakers warned that the ban on smoke shops doesn’t go far enough to ensure that taxpayer dollars aren’t being spent inappropriately.

“You have to make it illegal or it’s just a paper with no teeth,” said Republican Rep. Deb Sanderson of Chelsea.

LePage’s effort to ban the use of electronic benefit transfer cards outside of Maine also took a hit on Thursday. The House rejected that measure and approved an amended version that directs the state to investigate and prosecute the out-of-state use of EBT cards, instead.

Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew said earlier this week that nearly $14 million in welfare benefits were spent outside of Maine last year, including places like Disney World and Universal Studios - “places that many working-class families can only dream of going.” The administration says every dollar being spent inappropriately is less money going to those who truly need it.

But Democratic Rep. Drew Gattine of Westbrook said that the majority of out-of-state transactions in neighboring New Hampshire and questioned why the department is promoting the numbers in a “deceptive way” just to prevent people that live along the border from shopping at the stores closest to them.

Gattine’s bill, which would require the health department to report to the Legislature the actions it’s taken to investigate welfare fraud, did win approval Thursday.

But the House denied two of LePage’s other bills - one to remove some exemptions to participation in work-search programs and another to require welfare applicants to show they’ve applied to three jobs before receiving benefits - despite support from Republican lawmakers who say they will help people move from welfare to work.

Democrats contend that the work-search requirement would be ineffective and slammed the measure as an “election-year gimmick.”

“Instead of scoring political points by vilifying poor people, we should be focused on getting people back to work and growing our economy,” said Rep. Richard Farnsworth, a Democrat from Portland and co-chair of the Health and Human Services Committee.

The measures face further votes in both chambers.

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Follow Alanna Durkin on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aedurkin

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