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Democratic leaders shift focus to embrace welfare reforms

March 16, 2016

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Democrats have been working for years to defend the state’s social safety net from the steady attacks of Gov. Paul LePage, but now the party leaders say Maine’s welfare system is “broken” and needs reform.

The shift in rhetoric prompted Republicans to accuse Democrats of engaging in election-year politics on an issue that is popular with voters and central to the Republican Party’s brand.

Assistant House Minority Leader Ellie Espling, a Republican from New Gloucester, said she’s skeptical that Democrats are sincere.

“I’m leery of it,” she said. “We have tried these proposals before. Democrats line up and kill them in the dead of night.”

Democrats say LePage and his Republican allies don’t want true reform but instead focus on pushing people off welfare programs and stigmatizing the poor.

House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan said Democrats want to make the welfare system more effective and cost-efficient.

“We are willing and open to talking about real reform,” he said.

Maine voters are concerned about welfare fraud, and LePage’s focus on the issue during his five years in office has magnified those concerns, said Mary Ellen Fitzgerald, president of Critical Insights, a Portland-based nonpartisan polling firm. Democrats are changing their position on welfare because they are listening to voters, she said.

“It’s a political calculation,” she said.

Democrats last year defeated several Republican welfare-related bills, including a bill that would have put a nine-month cap on general assistance benefits and a bill that would have increased penalties for trafficking electronic benefit transfer cards, or EBT cards.

But Democrats say their current focus is consistent with what they have done in the past. For example, they point to a bill championed last year by Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, that tackled the “cliff” that occurs when families receiving assistance return to the workforce and face drastic reductions in aid.

The Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee on Thursday will take up another reform bill sponsored by Gattine. The bill, among other things, would create an oversight board to ensure that welfare programs are working, and it would require the state to set up separate “tracks” catering to individual needs, such as workforce skills or behavioral health treatment.

Republicans are quick to dismiss Gattine’s bill because they say it would increase the size of government and cost more money.

Republicans speak more favorably about a bill sponsored by another Democrat, Sen. Nate Libby of Lewiston. Libby’s bill would set up EBT cards so people can’t buy banned items, like alcohol, at the point of sale.

The bill, which also comes up for committee discussion Thursday, would require an investment in technology, but it’s a “great idea,” said Mary Mayhew, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services.

“We welcome that Democrats are finally acknowledging these concerns,” she said.

Gattine said Democrats often hear from constituents complaining about instances in which they believe someone is abusing welfare benefits. He said the public must first be convinced of the integrity of the welfare system before they embrace comprehensive reforms that aim to pull more people out of poverty.

“I don’t think we can build the transformational things we want to do unless we build a baseline of confidence in the community,” he said.

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