Liberal politicians in State House kill every welfare reform proposal

By Rep. Jethro Pease | Apr 24, 2014

Everybody I speak with, whether they're a Democrat, Republican, or Independent, agrees that Maine's welfare system has gotten out of control. They believe too many people get benefits and there aren't enough controls in the system to ensure that welfare is going only to the people who truly need it.

We had a chance to do something about that this year. Governor LePage and House Republican Leader Ken Fredette introduced four welfare reform bills that were so common-sense I was surprised to find out they weren't already written into law. Unfortunately, liberal politicians in Augusta killed every single one of them.

The first would have simply required that job-ready welfare applicants apply for three jobs before receiving benefits. They could apply online or in person and would provide verifiable information about where they applied to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) before receiving assistance. Nineteen other states have a similar law on the books. Democratic politicians killed that bill because they said it was too much of a burden on welfare applicants.

The second would have eliminated loopholes in the requirement that job-ready welfare recipients either work or participate in work search programs while on assistance. According to DHHS, many recipients are exploiting these loopholes.

These first two bills are especially important because Maine is facing $13 million in penalties from the federal government because so few only one in nine of our Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipients are meeting the work requirement of the program. That's because in state law, over the course of decades of mostly one-party Democratic rule, we passed bills that made our welfare system increasingly loose. Maine taxpayers will face a multi-million dollar day of reckoning from the feds if we don't enact reforms like these.

The third bill would have prohibited TANF funds from being used to purchase alcohol, tobacco, lottery tickets, and to post bail. One top Democrat actually stood on the floor of the House and said that welfare abuse is a victimless crime. That's funny, considering I run into taxpayers every day who have been victimized by welfare fraud and abuse that wastes their hard-earned money.

Finally, a fourth bill would have prevented Maine cash welfare from being spent out of state. Millions of dollars in Maine welfare cash has been spent in places as far away as Puerto Rico and Hawaii. It has even been spent at Disney World and Las Vegas casinos, and has been used in all 50 states. This kind of behavior is outrageous and unacceptable.

Fortunately, there is one reform being implemented that does not require the rubber stamp of liberal politicians. Governor LePage is implementing a photo ID requirement for welfare cards. The idea came from all of the instances of drug busts and prison intakes where people possessed multiple EBT cards, none of which belonged to them. Just the other day, a man in Saco was arrested for trying to sell an EBT card for cash outside a supermarket. Letting cashiers match card users with photos would prevent this kind of fraud by eliminating demand for the trafficked cards. The sad thing is that many of these cards turning up at drug busts were handed over as payment for drugs, instead of being used as they were intended, for things like diapers and food.

Republicans were able to achieve meaningful reform when they had the majority in the state legislature in 2011-2012. Motivated by the fact that Maine ranked second in the nation for welfare spending as a share of overall state spending, Republicans finally made Maine the 44th state to cap previously unlimited "temporary" assistance benefits. They stepped up fraud investigations, enacted drug testing for recipients, and reserved welfare for Maine citizens.

I support these reforms not just out of concern for the taxpayers, but out of concern for the truly needy who depend on these benefits: the elderly, disabled, and children. The more abuse there is in the system, the less assistance goes to those who truly need it. We have long way to go before Maine is no longer an outlier state when it comes to welfare, but I'm confident that with Republican leadership, we can get there.

Rep. Jethro Pease (R-Morrill) is serving his first term in the Maine House of Representatives.

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