Politics & Policy

As Goes Maine . . .

His welfare reforms help Governor Paul LePage in his reelection bid, and point the way for other states.

The nation’s most effective welfare reformer may be the Republican governor of Maine, Paul LePage, and he’s under assault for it.

He’s used his powers as governor to change welfare practices to cut back on fraud and abuse while helping able-bodied adults find their way into the work force. But LePage’s aggressive reforms have also made welfare the top issue in Maine’s tightly competitive upcoming gubernatorial race, where LePage and his Democratic challenger, Mike Michaud, are basically tied, according to RealClearPolitics’s latest average.

Welfare policy will also play a central role in the statehouse elections, where all 186 seats are up for vote. Maine has been identified as one state where control of the legislature may flip Republican, and the LePage administration says it would need the support of lawmakers to move forward on other key welfare-reform measures next term.

“It’s critically important that we’re able to maintain these reforms,” says Mary Mayhew, commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), calling the efforts of the LePage administration “unprecedented.” “We understand that with the stroke of a pen, many of these reforms could absolutely be reversed. But to further these efforts, we need a legislature that understands that the answer for Maine is not to grow welfare programs, creating more dependency on state government, trapping more people into poverty, and jeopardizing Maine’s economic vitality.”

To cut back on fraud abuse, which the Portland Press Herald estimated cost the state $3.7 million a year, Maine has doubled the number of fraud investigators, put photo IDs on EBT (electronic-benefit-transfer) cards, and required all welfare recipients with a drug-related felony on their records to prove they’re clean while receiving cash benefits. The LePage administration has also cracked down on EBT-card purchases that are “clearly in violation of the program and the intent of these benefits,” says Mayhew.

In January, TheMaineWire.com, a reporting website affiliated with the Maine Heritage Policy Center, found that over a three-year period, Maine EBT cards had been used in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, and that benefit cash had been withdrawn at amusement parks, strip clubs, liquor stores, and five-star resorts.

Mayhew says Maine has made an effort to improve the data-mining of EBT purchases, and it’s currently in the process of blocking EBT usage at 200 locations, including liquor stores, bars, and casinos. That information has also allowed Maine to terminate benefits when a recipient moves away.

Furthermore, LePage announced this summer that he would end the use of a federal recession-era work-requirement waiver for food-stamp recipients and begin requiring able-bodied, working-age beneficiaries to volunteer, work, or receive job training for 20 hours a week or lose their benefits within three months. And in 2012, Maine began enforcing a five-year cap on cash welfare benefits for recipients who aren’t elderly or disabled.

“Then additionally,” Mayhew says, “we have moved aggressively to support efforts to move people off of government programs toward self-sufficiency and employment.” The Department of Health and Human Services has increased cooperation with the state’s Department of Labor to provide job training and adult education, she says.

The Maine DHHS is also reviewing how cities and towns verify the citizenship status of welfare beneficiaries, with funding cuts planned for municipalities that don’t sufficiently screen. Ensuring that no illegal immigrants receive benefits could save the state $1 million a year, the LePage administration estimates.

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LePage’s legislative partners also introduced three welfare-reform bills, all of which were voted down along party lines, says David Sorenson, communications director for the Maine Republican party. “Democrats oppose any kind of reform to the welfare system, and Governor LePage is making serious headway in getting Maine toward what other states are doing,” Sorenson says. “It’s not about trashing and burning the welfare system. It’s about refocusing.”

Already, these reforms have been very successful in cutting welfare usage and spending.

The number of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families cash-benefit cases has decreased to 6,400 today from more than 14,000 in 2011.

In 2014, spending on food stamps decreased to $25.8 million, from $31.5 million in 2012, with 29,000 fewer people drawing benefits.

And in 2014, the LePage administration has referred 61 welfare-fraud cases to the state attorney general, while his predecessor referred only two in 2009 and 14 in 2010.

The LePage campaign has touted these successes, as have its supporters. The Republican Governors Association ran television and radio spots highlighting Maine’s improving financial situation and economy, praising his welfare-reform efforts, and attacking Michaud.

One RGA video ad mentions the 20,000 new private-sector jobs created under LePage’s administration, also noting that the governor “reformed welfare, cracking down on waste, fraud, and abuse.” Another concludes: “That’s Mike Michaud: Welfare for illegal immigrants, expensive perks for himself, higher taxes for middle-class families. Maine can’t afford Mike Michaud.” Other RGA video ads say Michaud would “make Maine more attractive to illegal immigrants who can’t get benefits in other states” and “make Maine a welfare destination state.”

Even Maine’s liberals have found the RGA’s campaign ads effective, if a conference call among liberal activists that was recorded and leaked last month is any indication.

The video ads attacking Michaud’s stance on welfare for immigrants is “aimed at Dems who are a little bit wiggly,” said Kevin Simowitz, organizing director of Maine People’s Alliance, on the recorded phone call in September. “And it’s been really successful, actually, in moving people who have pretty strong Democratic voting records telling us at the door that they voted for Obama twice but may consider voting for LePage because of this ad.”

Right now, more than half of Maine residents support the governor’s policies, according to recent polling by the Maine-based Pan Atlantic SMS Group. Likewise, polling by the Portland Press Herald in September found that half of Maine’s voters believed welfare caused more harm than benefit.

Steve Robinson, policy analyst for the Maine Heritage Policy Center, says the governor’s reforms have resonated because welfare abuse “touches on people’s lives; everyone in Maine has a story about witnessing EBT abuse, or they have a neighbor or a nephew who is on the dole when they could probably be working.”

Left-leaning groups have spent heavily to campaign against the governor, with labor-supported Maine Forward and NextGenClimate alone raising about $2.8 million to “turn LePage,” as the Bangor Daily News reported. And earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal reported that a PAC that receives funding from the Democratic Governors Association and organized labor “has devoted several millions of dollars” to LePage attack ads.

If LePage manages a win, expect more welfare reform on the agenda: He has said he wants welfare recipients to prove they’re seeking work, and Mayhew says Maine may also look at ways to limit EBT spending on soda and candy.

— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity and a Senior Fellow for the Independent Women’s Forum.

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