Politics & Policy

Cracking Down on Maine’s Welfare Reform

Governor LePage reins in entitlement abuse, and the Obama administration objects.

Maine’s Republican governor won reelection largely on his welfare-reform agenda — and the federal government is not pleased.

Late last week, the Obama administration threatened to cut federal funding over one of Maine’s new anti-fraud measures, while the LePage administration began marketing its aggressive reform agenda to a national audience. Grab the popcorn.

Statewide reform in Maine was overdue; the state’s unemployment rate is a mere 5.6 percent, but one in five residents receives food-stamp benefits, the state’s Department of Health and Human Services reports. Meanwhile, fraud and abuse cost Maine an estimated $3.7 million every year.

With these sorts of statistics in mind, Governor Paul LePage and his gutsy DHHS commissioner Mary Mayhew have pursued provocative reforms.

Maine has already, among other efforts, doubled the number of fraud investigators; required drug tests for beneficiaries with drug-related felonies; tracked and blocked the use of cash benefits at casinos, liquor stores, and casinos; reinstated the work-requirement for long-term food-stamp collection; and put a five-year cap on cash benefits for able-bodied, non-elderly recipients.

To cut back on fraud and deter the trafficking of food-stamp and cash-assistance cards, Maine also launched a program in June to put photo IDs on all electric-benefits transfer (EBT) cards.

The federal government didn’t like that idea from the beginning. Even though New York and Massachusetts already require photo IDs on EBT cards, the Obama administration required Maine to submit extensive paperwork before doing the same. In April, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) asked Maine to delay its program, warning that the state was “at risk” of losing funds and facing litigation.

Maine pushed forward anyway, and today, more than 21,000 EBT holders have volunteered to participate in the photo-ID pilot program. So last week the federal government attacked again, sending a second strongly worded letter to the LePage administration.

According to the Obama administration’s latest screed, requiring photo IDs could have a “chilling effect” on enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and constitutes a possible civil-rights violation. The letter reiterated that the Obama administration may withdraw some federal funding for Maine, though it did not specify an amount.

Instead of backing down in the face of federal opposition, Mayhew presented a hefty, 15-item wish list for federal reform of the food-stamp program at a group meeting for her counterparts in other states on Friday, a day after the USDA’s warning letter.

SNAP is “a critical safety-net program, but it lacks accountability for outcomes and clearly is vulnerable to significant fraud, waste, and abuse,” Mayhew tells NRO. Her proposed federal-level changes include a ban on the use of food stamps for soda and candy, as well as several measures to expand the amount of transaction data available to state officials and to crack down on fraud and abuse.

Mayhew says her counterparts in several other states have already expressed “significant support, agreement that this is a program that has expanded beyond the core intent as a safety net or work-support program.” Food-stamp usage “has quadrupled in cost nationally since 2001; it has doubled in cost since 2008 nationally. There is significant interest among a number of my counterparts for access to the data around what is being purchased with food stamps, to analyze how much soda versus milk is being purchased. This just screams for increased transparency, for greater accountability.”

Mayhew has forwarded her 15-point suggestions for food-stamp reform to Maine’s congressional delegates, and she tells NRO she intends to follow up with them soon. Meanwhile, her DHHS is gearing up to propose further state-level changes.

As NRO has reported before, Maine’s welfare reforms have already shown great success. Usage of cash benefits has dropped by 54 percent since LePage took office, while food-stamp spending decreased by $5.7 million. The LePage administration’s reforms also have a strong job-training and job-placement component, making the state more economically competitive in the long term.

No wonder the Obama administration is peeved. Nationwide, it’s worked hard to expand the number of Americans on the public doles. The last thing it wants is a contagion of Maine’s smart welfare-reform policies. The latest round of federal opposition isn’t about Maine’s EBT requirements; it’s about containment. So expect a good tussle for months to come.

— 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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