AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - Seeking support for proposed limitations on welfare benefits and job-search requirements for recipients, Maine Gov. Paul LePage said Monday that the state must overhaul its welfare system to root out fraud and misuse and ensure those who truly need it are getting the help they need.
Under the proposals the Republican governor is pushing this session, people would be barred from using some welfare benefits to buy tobacco, alcohol or lottery tickets and spending money on their electronic benefits cards out of state.
Meanwhile, LePage is seeking to require welfare applicants to show they’ve applied to at least three jobs before they can get benefits.
The governor’s proposals already have drawn criticism from Democrats and advocates for the poor who say the administration’s approach is misguided and that some of the provisions would hurt Mainers who need assistance.
LePage and Republican lawmakers dismissed the notion that the proposals are an attack on the poor and said they merely hope to protect taxpayers from footing the bill for the inappropriate use of welfare benefits.
“Everybody in their lifetime will go through a period where they go through a bump in the road and may need some help,” LePage said. “I want to be the first one in line to help, but I don’t want to be taken advantage of.”
Democrats are particularly concerned about one proposal that would eliminate a program that provides money and services, such as child care and transportation, for low-income parents enrolled in two- or four-year colleges. The program serves about 400 people, said Chris Hastedt, public policy director for Maine Equal Justice Partners, which advocates for low-income Mainers and provides legal aid.
“This is one of the most effective anti-poverty programs that we have,” said Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves of North Berwick. “This is a very common-sense program that really does help struggling families get back on their feet and move forward. And this is just an example of the governor being out of touch.”
LePage’s bills, which will receive a public hearing on Tuesday, face a tough road in the Legislature that’s controlled by Democrats who say they’re open to ways to eliminate misuse but question why the administration isn’t also going after fraud on the provider side.
Critics also point to the small amount of people actually misusing welfare benefits. Data released by the state earlier this year showed that the number of electronic welfare benefits transactions at smoke shops and bars was less than 1 percent of all transactions between January 2011 and November 2013.
House Republican Leader Ken Fredette of Newport, who is sponsoring two of the bills, pointed to his and LePage’s experiences growing up poor and urged Democrats to “stop attacking our motives and listen to what we have to say.”
“I know firsthand the perils of poverty, and I know firsthand how to overcome it,” he said. “More welfare for able-bodied people is not the way.”
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