One of Governor Paul LePage’s major goals after taking office involved reforming Maine’s welfare system. He campaigned on the idea of bringing our vast array of public assistance programs in line with national norms. There were dual advantages to his plan — keeping the system affordable for taxpayers and promoting work over welfare.

As someone who escaped welfare dependency as a teenager, the governor understands its debilitating impact — the dulling of ambition, the erosion of self-esteem and the withering of one’s work ethic. He wanted to ensure that welfare met the needs of those truly unable to help themselves. From the able-bodied, however, he expected more effort.

Addressing a joint session of the Legislature in February, he said the welfare changes in his budget proposal “send the message that work and independence are expected of everyone in Maine.”

This was a remarkable shift from the massive welfare expansion during the administration of the former governor, John Baldacci. From 2003 to 2010, Maine’s welfare enrollment grew 70 percent — from 226,000 recipients to 381,000.

Our welfare culture was nationally renowned, and the costs of maintaining it were staggering for a small state. In 2008, for instance, Maine spent more than $2.5 billion on welfare, which is more than it spent on K-12 education.

As Governor LePage and a new Legislature took office, 29 percent of the population was on some form of welfare. Maine ranked second in the nation in the percentage of its residents on food stamps — now called SNAP. We also had the country’s second highest rate of people on TANF, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, where our rate is more than twice the national average.

The big ticket item is Medicaid, or MaineCare, the state-federal program that provides free medical and dental care to lower-income residents. Currently, 359,000 Mainers are enrolled in the program — 27 percent of the state. In neighboring New Hampshire, by comparison, only 11 percent of the population is on Medicaid.

To bring these surging enrollments under control, the Legislature passed several of the governor’s proposals.

For example, immigrants will no longer be able to get MaineCare. This change affects legal immigrants who do not qualify for federal assistance because they haven’t been in the United States for at least five years. The only exceptions are minors under 21 and pregnant women.

The governor also proposed eliminating MaineCare for the 19,000 childless adults in the program. These are the so-called “non-cats” who do not fit into any normal Medicaid eligibility category.

Most states do not allow “non-cats” into their Medicaid program. Maine does, however, and the Legislature decided to let them stay on the rolls because they would have to be reinstated in the program anyway in 2014 when “Obamacare” is slated to start.

Under another change, TANF cash benefits will be limited to a lifetime eligibility of five years starting Jan. 1, 2012. This move follows the federal five-year limit for TANF established under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, better known as the “welfare reform” law.

In signing that statute, President Bill Clinton observed, “A significant number of people are trapped on welfare for a very long time, exiling them from the entire community of work that gives structure to our lives. From now on, the nation’s answer to this great social challenge will no longer be a never-ending cycle of welfare. It will be the dignity, the power and the ethic of work.”

In Maine, the five-year limit will include the time families received TANF before Jan. 1, as well as time going forward. Some individuals will still be able to get TANF cash for more than five years. Waivers will be granted to domestic violence survivors and households in which an adult or family member has an illness or impairment that limits ability to work.

Another TANF change requires drug testing for any recipient who has been convicted of a drug felony in the past 20 years. People who test “positive” will have the right to appeal. If they fail again, benefits will cease unless they enroll and fully participate in an approved treatment program. The goal here is to ensure that taxpayer-funded benefits are not used to support an illegal drug habit.

Governor LePage did not get everything he wanted with welfare reform, but this Legislature made a strong start in bringing the system under control. Welfare should be a temporary helping hand to get Mainers back on their feet, not a lifestyle and ticket to permanent dependence on government.

Rep. Ryan Harmon (R-Palermo) serves on the Legislature’s Taxation Committee. He represents Burnham, Freedom, Knox, Montville, Palermo, Thorndike, Troy and Unity.