May 2 2014
National Review Online
Jillian Kay Melchior
In March, police busted an alleged sex-trafficking ring in Maine after a 19-year-old woman fled, claiming she was afraid of being sold to a Boston pimp. Already, the three alleged traffickers had reportedly forced her to engage in sex acts to pay off a debt. Two of the accused remain behind bars — so it caught the attention of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ Fraud Investigation and Recovery Unit when the alleged sex traffickers’ electronic-benefits transaction (EBT) cards remained in use.
That’s just the latest in a series of sordid cases in Maine where welfare fraud and other criminal activity have mixed. In the past year, the Androscoggin County Jail alone has confiscated more than 87 EBT cards that were in the possession of people not authorized to use the benefits. The Portland Press Herald has estimated that public-benefits fraud in Maine costs taxpayers around $3.7 million each year.
Nevertheless, the federal government has pushed back hard against a Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) photo requirement for EBT cards; the photo is intended to deter fraud and abuse by ensuring that benefits aren’t accessed by someone who’s not authorized to use them. Despite warnings from the federal government, on Monday the Maine DHHS launched a voluntary pilot program, which is being conducted to carefully weed out any glitches before July, when a statewide EBT photo requirement goes into effect
On Friday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) wrote a letter to the Maine DHHS, asking it to delay even the pilot program and warning that “given the risk of losing Federal financial participation, as well as the risk for litigation against the State should the State’s implementation of the photo EBT card violate the provisions of the Food and Nutrition Act or SNAP regulations, Maine should not rush into implementation.”
“It was nonsensical that [the USDA] would be opposing the use of a voluntary pilot program in Maine,” Maine DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew tells National Review Online. “We’re extremely perplexed by the reaction from the federal government given that it is, in fact, permissible to put photos on the EBT cards. We would have expected that [the USDA] would be grateful that we are implementing [the program] in this manner to ensure that beneficiaries are experiencing a smooth transition to the new photo-ID card.”
Mayhew is putting it diplomatically. Since January, when the Maine DHHS first informed the USDA that it intended to require beneficiaries’ photos on EBT cards, the federal government has reacted with knee-jerk opposition. In February, the USDA requested extensive paperwork about the Maine proposal, throwing up spools of red tape for the state’s DHHS. Interestingly, the USDA letter that outlines its inquiries first reached the hands of U.S. representative Chellie Pingree, a Democrat whose billionaire husband owns the Portland Press Herald. Governor Paul LePage, who has led a welfare-reform effort aimed at reducing fraud and abuse, complained that he read about the USDA response in the Portland Press Herald before his administration had even received the USDA’s letter.
The Maine DHHS complied with the USDA’s request for extensive paperwork detailing the photo requirement for EBT cards. Nonetheless, and despite the fact that the Maine governor has the right to enact the photo-requirement measure, the USDA is continuing to issue loud calls for the entire program to be delayed. A photo requirement is already in effect in both New York and Massachusetts, and the Maine DHHS will push ahead as planned, Mayhew says.
“I haven’t seen anything at this point about litigation,” Mayhew says. “Our greater concern would be any action that [the federal government] might take related to our funding, which would be frankly counterproductive to our ability to ensure access and delivery of these critical benefits for the people of the state of Maine.”
The federal government’s opposition comes as Maine’s Democrat-controlled legislature has voted down several other welfare-reform proposals Governor LePage supports, including a bill to curb the use of EBT cards on alcohol, tobacco, gambling, adult entertainment, and bail, as well as a bill strengthening the job-search requirement. Both were voted down along party lines, says Peter Steele, a spokesman for the governor.
“Other than purely partisan politics, there is no earthly reason for Democrats in Augusta or Washington, D.C., to reject Governor LePage’s commonsense welfare reforms, which are widely supported by the people of Maine,” Steele tells NRO. “Democrats in Maine even called welfare fraud and abuse a ‘victimless crime.’ Governor LePage has no tolerance for those who would spend a single taxpayer dollar on alcohol, cigarettes, lottery tickets, strippers, or bail when that dollar is supposed to go to help Maine’s neediest children and families.”
Mayhew was also dismayed to see these bills killed. “I am very concerned about the sincerity within the federal government and frankly among public-policy makers here in Maine regarding their commitment to prevent fraud and abuse within these programs,” she says. “We have significant concerns generally about the misuse, abuse, and fraudulent use of EBT cards, and specifically the misuse of government benefits that is taking away critical resources from vulnerable families and children.#…#Our view is that any amount of fraud is intolerable.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.