LePage welfare reforms drive controversy in Maine

Printed from: http://newbostonpost.com/2015/11/20/lepage-welfare-reforms-drive-controversy-in-maine/

AUGUSTA, Maine – Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s push for welfare reform continues to generate controversy in the Pine Tree State.  

Supporters say the governor’s no-holds-barred approach is winning, as evidenced by a 22 percent drop in food-stamp recipients in Maine since 2012, according to state data.  But it may be costing him public support: Although he was re-elected last year, Lepage’s job approval rating has fallen to 39 percent, according to a Morning Consult poll of 654 voters from May to November, released Friday.

Last year, Maine reestablished work and volunteer requirements for able-bodied adults under 50 who don’t have children and receive food stamps. The reform moved more than 9,000 people off the welfare rolls, saving about $21.6 million a year, according to the Portland Press Herald.

Some observers point to Maine’s reforms as a model for success.

“Maine is one of the few states that has seriously addressed the growth of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, and it should be applauded for doing so,” wrote Matthew Glans, a senior policy analyst at the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, in an Oct. 29 column published in the Press Herald.

But LePage’s opponents cast the renewed work and volunteer requirements in a far different light.

“A war on the poor,” Mary Mayhew, Health and Human Services commissioner, said about the program at a Heritage Foundation anti-poverty forum in Washington Thursday. She was responding to questions about how LePage’s detractors have characterized his policies.

LePage is currently pushing for an asset test for those receiving food stamps. Childless households will be ineligible for the benefit if they have more than $5,000 in assets, excluding homes and the family car, according to the state website.

Tensions over the reform efforts escalated this week when state Republican Party officials sent out an email blast pointing out that Maine law lets holders of Electronic Benefit Transfer cards, which are credited with welfare funds, to wire money to foreign countries.

“Imagine – welfare dollars that are supposed to be used to help the truly needy here in Maine being sent via wire transfer to unknown recipients around the world,” Maine Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett said in the newsletter, which was also posted on the Maine GOP’s website.

The Bangor Daily News reported that the Republicans sent the email as part of an effort to build support for a proposed ballot initiative that seeks additional reforms. The proposed ballot initiative bundles together a sweeping series of changes, including welfare reform.

Democrats immediately accused the GOP of exploiting  the Paris terrorist attacks. And Robyn Merrill, the executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners, an Augusta-based group that advocates for the poor, blasted the proposed reforms, describing the campaign in support of them as “fear-mongering at its worst.”

Bennett’s letter, however, makes no mention of the Paris attacks.

According to the state GOP, backers are trying to introduce the proposals directly to voters because Democrats, who hold a majority in the state Legislature, have repeatedly blocked such measures.  The proposal includes lowering the individual income-tax rate to 4 percent from the current rate of as much as 7.95 percent “and to dedicate funds to further reduce the income tax until it is eliminated.” One goal of the initiative is to abolish the personal income tax by 2020.

LePage, who proposed the measure, said at the outset that his “vision for Maine is a Maine without an income tax.”

Backers of the initiative must submit at least 62,000 signatures from registered voters to qualify for the November 2016 ballot.

Contact Evan Lips at [email protected] or on follow Evan on Twitter at @evanmlips.

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