Weekly Radio Address: Senator Gratwick says Governor's war on the poor is a cynical political campaign strategy, a witch hunt
In his office, Governor LePage rings alarm bells on a daily basis about fraud and abuse. But his choice of when to sound the alarm is selective. He does not ring the alarm for all fraud and abuse, only when he talks about the poor.
Good Morning. This is State Senator Geoff Gratwick of Bangor.
Make no mistake, fraud and abuse, of any sort, is wrong; it is cheating, it is stealing. Where ever it exists, it must be prosecuted–and our laws must be strong.
Here’s the thing: our laws are strong.
The Maine Attorney General’s office and Department of Health and Human Services have active divisions dedicated to investigating and prosecuting fraud and abuse. In fact, in the past several years, lawmakers passed a measure giving the state an additional $700,000 per year to fight fraud. We hired an additional seven fraud investigators so we now have a total of 17. To put that in perspective, the state only has 12 investigators inspecting the safety of daycare centers for infants and children in Maine.
And so it seems, Maine has all the tools needed to investigate potential cases of fraud.
While Governor LePage is holding press conferences with glossy photos of EBT cards, a closer look at where recovered funds actually come from gives a more accurate picture of the true extent of the problem. And, it suggests that perhaps the Governor is more interested in politics than in protecting the public purse in his pursuit of fraud and abuse.
Over the last four years, from 2010 to 2014, Maine has prosecuted and recovered funds related to fraud and abuse by individuals and large corporations. Here are the facts: you decide which group deserves more attention.
Maine, along with the federal government, has prosecuted 48 medical and pharmaceutical corporations and recovered $55 million dollars.To their shame, these businesses include some of the largest and best known medical companies in the country – Walgreens, Johnson and Johnson, Avandia, and Merck.
The state also prosecuted 37 individuals for abuse of SNAP and TANF benefits. SNAP is the SupplementalNutrition Assistance Plan (SNAP) and TANF is Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Recent data from DHHS indicates that less than half of one percent of folks, that is one in every 200 people receiving benefits have abused these programs. The guilty folks have been sentenced to jail for up to a year and returned $489,000 to the state treasury.
The evidence simply does not support accusations of widespread problems.
So compare: big corporations fraudulently took $55 million dollars, and individuals fraudulently took less than half a million dollars.
Make no mistake. No amount of fraud is acceptable. But in a time of scarce resources, is it unacceptable that the Governor is spending more than $700,000 to recover less than $500,000 from individuals.
The Governor has focused our attention solely on the low income people in front of us in the grocery line buying food with an EBT card because they are an easy target. It’s easier to rail against the poor than it is to make sure our system works for all Mainers.
Just this week, Senate Democrats voted in support of a measure that would have banned the so-called “Prohibited Five” from purchase with TANF dollars. The items on this list include alcohol, cigarettes, lottery tickets, bail, and strip clubs. It makes common sense that in order for a program to work effectively and help families and children in crisis get back on their feet, it is essential that these dollars not go toward things like alcohol and cigarettes.
But for all the tough talk, not a single Republican supported the measure to ban the “Prohibited Five”–even though it was nearly identical to a bill sponsored by Governor LePage. One has to wonder why.
The Governor’s war on the poor is a cynical political campaign strategy, a witch hunt; he has chosen to demonize people who are poor–even if they are the working poor- for political advantage.
The poor and the powerless have been easy scapegoats since history began. It easier to stoke popular fear and resentment of the ‘other’, to blame the victim, than it is to find real solutions to difficult problems.
The only way we can curb fraud and abuse by individuals is by using the proven levers that help people escape poverty: education, jobs and health care. The only way we can curb corporate abuse is to have a government that functions well. This is a job that must involve us all, including the Governor.
Thank you for listening. This is State Senator Geoff Gratwick. Have a great spring weekend.