- Associated Press - Monday, April 6, 2015

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - Republican Gov. Paul LePage on Monday resurrected several proposed changes to Maine’s welfare system that were killed in the Democratic-led Legislature last year, arguing that the GOP’s success in the November elections proves that residents are “demanding reform.”

The governor is again pushing to bar the use of benefit cards outside of Maine and on certain purchases and wants to require applicants to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to show they’ve applied for three jobs before getting benefits.

LePage and Republican lawmakers, who used the welfare issue to hit Democrats in the campaigns last fall, point to their party’s ability to maintain in power at the Blaine House and take control of the Senate as evidence that these policies are what the Maine people want.

“They are demanding reform. They expect reform and we are going to give them reform,” LePage said. “Now legislators must decide if they want to work for the Maine people or work for the welfare activists.”

Democrats, who blasted many of LePage’s efforts during the election-year session, are now taking a more tempered approach. House Majority Jeff McCabe explained that divided government poses new challenges and said his party is “trying to reach out and say ‘let’s work together.”

“We will give all the bills a fair public vetting and figure out where we can land focusing on making sure that we’re getting people back to work and increasing their wages,” said House Speaker Mark Eves. Last year, Eves said LePage’ was seeking to “vilify the poor in order to score political points.”

LePage’s bill, which is being introduced by GOP Senate President Michael Thibodeau, would make it illegal to use benefits to buy things like liquor, lottery tickets, tattoos and bail. Recipients would lose their benefits for six months if they violate the program’s rules three times. A new provision would also prohibit people from receiving Alternative Aid if they’ve already reached their 5-year limit on TANF.

Democrats have questioned how barring the use of benefits on certain products would be enforced because it’s impossible to track what recipients buy after they use their electronic benefit cards to withdrawal cash from an ATM. Advocates for the poor say up-front work search requirements will put up more barriers for families that are already struggling.

But LePage and other supporters say the state must strengthen the integrity of the welfare system to weed out abuse and help more people receiving public assistance find work.

Jill Rothrock, a former welfare recipient who visited the Statehouse Monday to support the governor’s plan, said the system makes it too easy to spend benefits on things like drugs and alcohol, “which creates a stigma around public assistance that doesn’t need to exist.”

LePage and Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner are “working hard to change that perception” and to turn welfare into an “employment program that’s not a lifetime handout,” she said.

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

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