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Despite Objections, Maine Governor Acts On Food Stamp Fraud
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Despite Objections, Maine Governor Acts On Food Stamp Fraud

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Despite Objections, Maine Governor Acts On Food Stamp Fraud
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ARUN RATH, HOST:

From the NPR West studios in Culver City, Calif., it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Arun Rath. To combat welfare and food stamp fraud, states across the nation are considering various measures, including requiring photos on electronic benefit transfer cards. Massachusetts and New York are the only states with photo ID programs right now but they'll soon be joined by Maine, whose Republican governor is using his executive authority to bypass a political battle and start a similar program. Main Public Radio's Jay Field reports.

JAY FIELD, BYLINE: Maine Gov. Paul LePage has made rooting out fraud in the welfare and food stamp programs a top priority since his early days in office. There are roughly 224,000 active EBT cards in Maine. The problem, says LePage, is that some of them aren't being used for their intended purpose.

GOV. PAUL LEPAGE: Every dollar that goes to buy cigarettes, alcohol, lottery tickets is a dollar taken away from a child, a family or other truly needy in our society.

FIELD: LePage says transaction records show that EBT cards have been used more than 3,000 times at smoke shops; and more than 650 times at bars, sports pubs and strip clubs; since early 2011. Democrats note that's only around two-tenths of a percentage of all EBT purchases and money withdrawals during this period. But that's two-tenths of a percentage too much, said LePage in his State of the State address earlier this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)

LEPAGE: My proposal will prohibit TANF funds from being used for alcohol, tobacco, gambling and other adult entertainment.

(APPLAUSE)

FIELD: In March, LePage introduced a package of sweeping legislative reforms to combat fraud in both the food stamp and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, programs. Democrats, who control the Maine Legislature, blocked LePage's proposals. So the governor, who is in the midst of a tight re-election battle, is using his executive authority to start a controversial new program to put photos on EBT cards.

SUE SAPIEL: Would you look right at the camera, please?

FIELD: Case manager Sue Sapiel is running a test version of the program in Bangor. She snaps a photo of cardholder Ella Hunter. A few seconds later a small machine on Sapiel's desk begins to hum.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHOTO PRINTING MACHINE)

SAPIEL: There's your new card and I just need you to sign this saying that you received it, everything.

FIELD: Starting in July, welfare and food stamp recipients statewide will be required to have a photo taken when they come in for their yearly re-certification of their EBT cards. Bethany Hamm, with state's Office of Family Independence, is overseeing the rollout of the program.

BETHANY HAMM: We do believe that it will be a deterrent, just an additional tool to combat fraud in this program.

FIELD: But the U.S. Department of Agriculture has warned Maine that it could lose federal funding if it goes ahead with the program.

CHRIS HASTEDT: In our view, it invites violations of very important protections under federal law.

FIELD: Chris Hastedt is public policy director at Maine Equal Justice Partners, a group that advocates for low-income residents. EBT cards, Hastedt notes, belong not just to an individual, but to a household.

HASTEDT: And regardless of whose picture is on that card, anyone in the household is legally allowed to use that card, as is anyone else that the household designates or authorizes to use the card.

FIELD: Hastedt says putting photos on EBT cards also forces grocery clerks to police fraud. But federal law prohibits merchants from treating EBT cards any differently than debit or credit cards. Officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture say they'll be monitoring the Maine program as it begins to rollout officially in July. For NPR News, I'm Jay Field.

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