After first welfare reform vote, Libby hopeful compromise will prevail

Posted: April 07, 2016 | Senator Libby

AUGUSTA — The Senate on Thursday took an initial vote LD 1097, Sen. Nate Libby’s bill to ban the use of welfare cash to buy alcohol, tobacco, lottery tickets and other items that don’t help low-income families pull themselves out of poverty.

The bill, “An Act to Improve the Integrity of Maine’s Welfare Programs,” is the first part of Legislative Democrats’ Welfare that Works proposal.

Libby has worked since the early days of last year to craft a narrowly tailored bill that would restore accountability at the cash register for welfare recipients. Along with Senate Democrats, he’s focused on policy proposals to which both sides could agree.

Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston.

Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston.

“When I introduced this bill a year and a half ago, the two parties were far, far apart,” said Sen. Libby, D-Lewiston. “We’re closer now than we’ve ever been, and I’m hopeful that as this bill works through the waning days of this Legislature, Mainers will finally have the welfare reform they’ve been asking for. I ask all my colleagues to continue looking for the ‘yes,’ so we can get this done for all our constituents.”

In a 21-14 vote along party lines, the Senate approved a version of the bill backed by Republicans, which institutes the product ban but does not call for the creation of systems to prohibit the use of EBT cards to purchase prohibited items. The Republican plan also institutes penalties that do not fit the crime, including the lifetime loss of thousands of dollars of benefits for parents who make as little as a $1 prohibited purchase.

Democrats in the Senate supported a version of the bill that requires updates to existing technology at retail shops that accept EBT cards, which would prevent welfare dollars from being used on alcohol, tobacco, adult entertainment, lottery tickets and other gambling activity, tattoos, guns and ammunition, and bail. Lastly, the plan institutes tough but fair penalties, ranging from repayment of misused taxpayer dollars to a six-month loss of benefits.

The bill now heads to the Democrat-controlled House, for initial votes.

The bill, along with one by Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, comprise Democrats’ Welfare that Works plan, which restores accountability to welfare and transforms welfare from a one-size-fits-all program to one that targets specific services such as housing, job training and education, to help Mainers lift themselves out of poverty.