- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 16, 2015

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - Maine’s governor and lawmakers plan to revisit limits on how welfare recipients can spend their money following a report that hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on lottery tickets.

The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting based its estimate on money spent on $22.4 million in large prizes collected by welfare recipients between 2010 and 2014. Those included eight jackpots worth at least $500,000 apiece.

The new data was obtained from the Department of Health and Human Services under the state’s open records law. The agency compared a list of lottery winners against a list of people who are welfare recipients.

Last year, lawmakers took up a proposal to ban the use of welfare benefits to buy alcohol, cigarettes and lottery tickets, but lawmakers failed to reach a compromise. Republican Rep. Deborah Sanderson, ranking minority members of the Health and Human Services Committee, said the report should send a signal to Democrats in the legislature that it’s time to tighten laws.

“I hope it would open their eyes to what a big problem this is,” Sanderson said, adding that welfare recipients who win big awards should be removed from the rolls.

Senate Democratic leaders agreed that it’s time to disallow the purchase of lottery tickets with state money.

Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond and Sen. Anne Haskell, the ranking Democrat on the Health and Human Services Committee, issued a joint statement that they would pursue “common sense” legislative fixes that have been enacted in other states.

“What people do with taxpayer money is everybody’s business,” said Sen Alfond. “State assistance is meant to help Mainers put food on the table, keep a roof over their heads, cover medical expenses and keep up with the bills - not to be spent on lottery tickets.”

Alfond acknowledged that fixing the problem could be “complicated.” Haskell said legislators must ensure that no one who “still needs a little help loses it unnecessarily.”

Mary Mayhew, commissioner of the health and human services department, said she supports efforts to adjust the law.

“We would support any additional legislation to ensure tax dollars are used only for the truly needy and supporting their needs, not subsidizing gambling activities,” she said.

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