The Right View: Welfare fraud is a fact Maine can't ignore

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One of my father’s favorite sayings was “don’t let me confuse you with the facts.”

For all of the emoting, victim parading, and LePage bashing that is currently going on regarding the governor’s attempts at combating welfare fraud in Portland and beyond, all of that noise does nothing to change the facts.

Fact: WGME reporter Jon Chrisos analyzed data from the Department of Health and Human Services, which administers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps program, in Maine. “A copy of a receipt from a local convenience store shows a food stamp balance of more than $5,000. According to records, there are a dozen balances bigger than the one on that receipt. Some of them are more than $7,000,” Chrisos reported. He also found 135 accounts with more than $2,000.

The average person on food stamps in Maine gets about $120 a month.

The federal government allows unused benefits to carry over, while the states are “encouraged to monitor account balances and correct and adjust benefit allotments if necessary,” according to Chrisos’ report.

Gov. Paul LePage has asked DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew to review the accounts, and Chrisos reported that she “wrote a letter to our state’s congressional delegation, asking them to reform the food stamp program at the federal level, saying there’s a limit to what can be done without action from Washington.”

State Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, says he wants the Legislature to also look at this issue. He says it’s one of several welfare reforms he plans to tackle and wants to explore a bill that would “stop balances from rolling over indefinitely.”

This problem is an example of government ineptitude at its finest. “The government” doesn’t care about people, folks. It doesn’t have feelings, it doesn’t care about the poor and infirm or the mentally ill. And it certainly doesn’t care about wasting hard-working taxpayers’ money. It simply uses people that fit nicely into those categories in order to grow ever larger, ever more powerful, to “fix” the problems that it, in and of itself, creates.

Fact: In January, field examiners for DHHS conducted a review of the administration of the General Assistance program of the city of Portland and discovered the now-widely debated “Sheltergate.”

Right down to the municipal level, once again we discover why the rules (e.g. the law) matter. Shelters may not submit operating expense costs to the state under GA for reimbursement. Portland did. Shelters must determine resident eligibility on at least a monthly basis. Portland did not. The city of Portland must adhere to the statutes and regulations requiring residents to utilize any income or resources they have before using shelter resources. It did not. The city of Portland further is “incorrectly submitting reimbursement requests for individuals who are not U.S. citizens or otherwise eligible for state and local public benefits,” according to the DHHS report.

The rules beget the facts, and the facts of an issue can drive change. Once the dust has settled from these two particular cases of food stamp and shelter resource abuse, if the issue at hand turns out to be mental illness driving such waste, then we should attack that problem, statewide, head on: something that is long overdue anyway.

Once the rules are in place however, the importance of enforcing, and steadfastly upholding them, cannot be stressed enough. Even if you disagree with them. Taxpayers’ money is at stake here; $24 million in the GA program, in fact. Taxpayers’ rights to accountability and fiscal prudence have to be protected as well. They are no less important than the rights of the individuals who consume those dollars.

And that’s a fact.

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Julie McDonald-Smith lives in North Yarmouth. She is a registered nurse, former Capitol Hill staffer and former chairwoman of the Cape Elizabeth Republican Committee. Her column appears every other week.