- Associated Press - Monday, April 7, 2014

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - The Maine Senate on Monday approved a retooled version of Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to prohibit the use of welfare benefits to buy cigarettes and alcohol, but rejected his efforts to institute stricter work-search requirements for recipients.

The proposals have been one of the Republican governor’s top priorities this session, but they’ve drawn criticism from Democrats in the majority who’ve characterized them as an attack on the poor.

Here’s a look at where the welfare debate stands in Maine:

Q: What’s the status of the bills now?

A: The Senate approved a Democratic-backed amendment Monday that would ban the use of electronic benefit transfer cards to buy things like lottery tickets, alcohol and cigarettes but also soften the proposed penalties for offenders. It would also specify that retailers are prohibited from accepting the cards for those products.

The Democratic-led House approved a different version last week that would expand current law - which prohibits EBT cards at liquor stores, strip clubs and casinos - to also include smoke shops.

The differences will be worked out with further votes in both chambers.

The Senate nixed two of LePage’s other bills that would have required applicants to show they’ve applied to three jobs before receiving benefits and to eliminate some exceptions to participation in work-search programs means. Those measures are now dead.

LePage’s proposal to ban the out-of-state use of EBT cards also failed. Like the House, the Senate instead endorsed measure directing the state to study the issue. That faces further votes in both chambers.

Q: What’s the problem?

A: Roughly 3,000 EBT transactions were made at smoke shops in Maine between 2011 and November 2013, and another 650 transactions were made at places that primarily sell alcohol, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. But critics are quick to point out that the amount of the transactions were less than 1 percent of all purchases in that time period.

Q: What’s the debate?

A:Lawmakers say they agree that welfare benefits shouldn’t be used to buy liquor and cigarettes. But the biggest contention remains over how to best reduce their use for those products.

Critics of the alcohol-and-cigarettes-ban say it’s unenforceable because the state can’t track what people buy after they use their cards to get cash at ATMs. They say officials should focus on bolstering the enforcement of current law.

But Republicans say the ban may not prevent all inappropriate use, but it will deter it, like a speed limit deters speeding. Republicans, however, oppose the amended version of the bill passed on Monday because they say the softened penalties won’t do enough to prevent misuse.

Q: What’s next?

A: Even after the welfare debate ends in the Legislature, the issue will likely reappear in LePage’s re-election campaign. The need to make changes to the state’s welfare programs was a central theme in LePage’s 2010 bid for governor and has been a priority for his administration since then. Democrats claim LePage introduced the bills merely to appeal to his base in November.


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



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