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Opinion

Date: 03/15/11

Changes in store for Maine's welfare system

By Rep. Russell Black

While much of the country is focused on the NCAA basketball tournament, Augusta is focused on the state budget. Legislative committees are scrutinizing their sections of Governor LePage's spending proposal for the next two years. Besides calling for $6.1 billion in General Fund appropriations, his plan makes policy changes in some important areas.

One such area is Maine's welfare system. You may recall that when the governor was running for office, welfare reform was one of his major themes. As someone who grew up homeless on the streets of Lewiston and was on welfare himself, he understands the dangers of dependency. It dulls ambition and fosters an entitlement mentality in the recipients. He eventually broke free of the system and went on to earn a college degree and an MBA before starting a successful business career.

The governor knows the value of determination in overcoming tough odds, and he expects more from those folks who look to welfare for survival. When he rolled out his budget to a joint session of the Legislature in February, he set the tone for his approach in a few words. The welfare changes in the package, he said, "send the message that work and independence are expected of everyone in Maine."

Obviously, he wasn't referring to Mainers in nursing homes or folks suffering from debilitating diseases. But for everyone else, his point was clear. Don't plan on making welfare a way of life.

Maine has a reputation as one of the most generous welfare states in America. The cost to taxpayers is high and rising, and the programs are subject to abuse. We've all heard anecdotes about people moving to Maine after exhausting welfare eligibility in their home states. We've heard stories about people "scamming" the system. At the huge Department of Health and Human Services, the "culture" encourages dependency and welfare staffers are warned not to report fraud.

It is one thing to take care of the truly needy; it is something else to pay high taxes to support people who won't help themselves. The governor's proposal aims to take corrective action. Let me outline a few of his proposed welfare changes.

Maine is one of several states that provide state-funded welfare benefits to non-citizens. The benefits include food supplements, Medicaid and cash payments under TANF - Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

In 1996, under President Clinton, the U.S. government prohibited any federal money for welfare benefits going to legal non-citizens during their first five years in our country. The feds wanted to ensure that immigrants did not become a public burden. States that decided to keep paying those benefits had to do so with state money only. Maine was one of them.

The governor's budget eliminates coverage for legal non-citizens during their first five years in America, saving taxpayers $19.5 million over the two-year budget cycle.

Maine also is one of a few states that provide welfare benefits to convicted drug felons with no requirement for drug testing or treatment for addiction. The federal government, as part of the 1996 welfare reform, prohibited any federal benefits for convicted drug felons. However, it gave states the option to keep paying those benefits with funds from state taxpayers. Maine chose to keep paying.

The governor's budget would require convicted drug felons to have regular testing and addiction treatment if receiving TANF cash assistance or food supplements (food stamps). As the governor said, "If we are serious about helping people move to independence and work, we must address the barriers caused by addiction. Otherwise, we are spinning our wheels and squandering state resources."

Following federal policy, most states set a strict five-year time limit on TANF cash assistance. Maine, once again, is an exception. But without time limits, the governor said, many individuals lack the incentive to find more rewarding work and move their families to a better life.

The budget proposal requires a strict five-year (or 60 month) limit on benefits. Maine residents who have already been on welfare for five years would have a six-month grace period to find another source of income.

The governor's plan also would establish firm work requirements for TANF recipients and align Maine's system with the national mainstream. Currently, our sanctions for non-compliance with ASPIRE work requirements are among the weakest in the nation. Only California has such weak sanctions for not meeting program, work and job-search requirements.

ASPIRE stands for Additional Support for People in Retraining and Employment. The program is designed to move TANF recipients into the workforce, and it provides a wide range of benefits - child care, dental care, a transportation allowance, car repair expenses, car insurance, eye care, books and supplies, clothing and uniforms, tuition and school fees, occupational expenses and other cash for work-related equipment.

The governor's reform would require that benefits are withheld until the individual meets TANF/ASPIRE job search and work requirements. Still, this maximum sanction would not be as severe as the sanction in 21 other states, where the case is completely closed for non-compliance.

Remember, these changes are proposals. They would take effect only if they survive the budget negotiations. ###

State Rep. Russell Black (R-Wilton), a first-term legislator, serves on the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee