January 1, 2013

LePage readies package of welfare reform bills

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The LePage administration appears ready to challenge the new Democratic-controlled Legislature with several bills intended to reform Maine's welfare system.

The administration has submitted a bill that could block convicted drug felons from receiving public assistance. Another proposal could allow the Department of Health and Human Services to prohibit the use of food stamps to buy soda.

A third proposal, which may be aimed at welfare fraud, could grant additional subpoena powers to the DHHS commissioner.

The exact language of the bills is unavailable, and DHHS officials did not respond to requests for comment. However, the bills' titles have been submitted on the administration's behalf, according to legislative documents.

The new bills are consistent with the governor's previous efforts to tighten welfare eligibility. In 2011, LePage proposed and the Legislature passed a two-year budget that capped eligibility for a core welfare program -- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families -- at five years.

Also in the budget was a provision that required convicted drug felons to pass drug tests before receiving welfare benefits.

One of the new bills, L.D. 525, "An Act to Make Convicted Drug Felons Ineligible for TANF Assistance," appears to take the 2011 budget provision a step further. It promises to reignite a debate that Maine and other states have had.

In 1996, Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, which barred convicted drug felons from receiving welfare. The federal law allowed states to modify or eliminate the ban, and 32 states have either lifted it or changed it, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Maine removed the ban in 2002, after advocates for low-income people said it withheld assistance from children whose mothers were convicted.

They also argued that barring drug felons from public assistance could lead them to commit more crimes, out of desperation.

Those arguments recently prompted lawmakers in Missouri, West Virginia and Delaware to propose lifting the ban; but supporters of the prohibition argue that allowing drug felons to receive assistance rewards illegal behavior.

LePage has said repeatedly that Maine is too generous with its public assistance, so it is limiting resources to help the truly needy.

He has supported drug testing for all welfare recipients, although that proposal lost traction because of concerns about costly legal challenges experienced in Florida.

Another bill submitted by the administration may resurrect a debate about whether food stamps should be used to buy soft drinks. Several states, including Maine, have reviewed similar proposals in recent years.

L.D. 528 would direct DHHS to seek a waiver from the federal government to ban the use of food stamps to buy soft drinks.

Similar bills have been proposed in other states, where lawmakers have tried to put soda, candy bars and other junk foods on the short list of items that can't be bought with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program cards.

The federal program now prohibits the purchase of alcohol, tobacco and other nonfood products. Banning food products requires a federal waiver.

In 2009, Democratic Rep. Peggy Pendleton, of Scarborough, introduced a bill seeking a ban on using food stamps to buy soda.

While some health advocates supported it, the proposal died before reaching a floor vote. The Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee unanimously rejected the bill.

Opponents of the idea say it unfairly targets low-income people, while proponents argue that soda feeds an obesity epidemic. Earlier this year, the California watchdog group Eat Drink Politics argued that taxpayers should not be subsidizing American obesity with food stamps.

In 2011, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg made a similar argument when he pitched a two-year pilot program to determine whether it would reduce obesity rates among food stamp users.

The federal government rejected the proposal, saying it would be too difficult to implement.

A third proposal by the LePage administration would grant additional subpoena power to the DHHS commissioner and his or her "designee."

According to the Maine Health Information Management Association, DHHS now can subpoena records in enforcement matters related to child or elder abuse.

Other states have expanded the powers of health and human services officials to include subpoenas in the investigation of welfare fraud.

LePage frequently has vowed to crack down on welfare fraud and has tried to beef up DHHS investigating teams.

Steve Mistler -- 791-6345

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