Big changes are on the horizon for many low-income Maine residents as Gov. Paul LePage's administration plans to move forward next month with new rules that will require food stamp users to have a job and some welfare recipients to be drug-tested to continue receiving benefits.
The Republican governor, whose efforts to overhaul the state's welfare programs are playing a central role in his re-election campaign, says Maine must prioritize its resources for the neediest while encouraging recipients to become self-sufficient.
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But advocates say the changes will cause many struggling recipients to unfairly lose their benefits and force them to rely on food banks, while Democrats question why the administration is deciding to implement the new policies so close to the November election.
"The timing of all of these things lends one to think that all of this is politically motivated because it's an election year," said Rep. Drew Gattine, a Westbrook Democrat.
Starting in October, food stamp recipients between ages 18 and 49 will have to work at least 20 hours a week, volunteer or participate in a work-training program or they will lose their benefits after three months. The rule has been reviewed by the attorney general's office and submitted to the secretary of state.
Maine has been using a federal waiver since 2008 that has allowed jobless adults to continue receiving benefits after the three months is up.
Advocates for the poor contend that declining the waiver now, when the state's unemployment rate remains higher than it was before the Great Recession, is a dangerous move that will punish those who through no fault of their own can't find a job.
Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew said the state is expanding an education and training program to help the estimated 12,000 people that could be impacted find a job. Maintaining the status quo is not enough, she said.
"How can we possibly argue that the current program and current structure is working when these individuals in the program ... are, in fact, trapped in poverty? Should we be looking at alternative approaches that actually help people become self-sufficient?" she said.
The state is also planning next month to begin drug-testing people in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program who have been convicted of drug-related felonies as far as back as 1996. The rule change is awaiting final approval from the attorney general's office.
There will be more than 50 testing sites across Maine and tests are expected to cost the state about $60 apiece for the collection, shipping, testing and reporting, said John Martins, a spokesman with the Department of Health and Human Services. The state does not know how many people in the program will need be tested but estimates that it's in the hundreds.
Several other states, including Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin, have implemented drug-testing requirements for people with prior drug-related convictions, said Rochelle Finzel of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The newest rules come months after LePage announced that Maine would cut off all funding for a municipal welfare program to cities and towns that continue to provide benefits to immigrants who can't prove they're living in the state legally.
Several cities and immigrants are challenging the policy in court, and the drug-testing policy could also be headed for a legal fight.
Oamshri Amarasingham, public policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, which argues that the policy is unconstitutional, said the organization is waiting to see what actions it will take but is committed to ensuring that it doesn't go into effect.
"We will absolutely be there at every step to oppose it," she said.
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