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Maine Cracks Down on Use of Electronic Benefits Cards

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services is now blocking public benefits cards from being used at ATMs in liquor stores, casinos, and strip clubs. A law banning public benefit cards in these locations was signed two years ago by Gov. Paul LePage, with bipartisan support. But some Democrats and policy advocates say the LePage administration dug in its heels in implementing the law. And as Patty Wight reports, they suggest that future efforts should focus on combating poverty.

  As of mid-May, Electronic Benefit Transfer - or EBT - cards are blocked from use at ATMs at 44 locations across the state. DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew says that number will swell to more than 200 locations by August. 

"So the card simply will not work in those facilities," Mayhew says. "It's been illegal for anyone to use their card in those facilities."

It's been illegal since 2012, when the federal government required states to prevent EBT card use at liquor stores and gambling and adult entertainment venues by 2014 or face funding cuts. Mayhew says the ban on withdrawing cash at certain ATMs takes the law one step further. 

"We want to ensure that vulnerable families are using these resources to support basic necessities - food, clothing, housing, purchase of diapers - that's what the intent of this program is," she says.

One banned location is Jokas liquor store in Waterville. Manager Brittnae DeRoche says Jokas doesn't sell enough grocery items to accept EBT cards. But the store does have an ATM machine that, up until recently, EBT card holders could use. "I'm not sure if they've used the ATM to make their purchases through their EBT card," she says.

Chris Hastedt of Maine Equal Justice Partners says state data shows that a small number of EBT transactions occur at ATMS in liquor stores, casinos, and strip clubs. But the data doesn't reveal what people are buying at that location, if anything. But she's glad that EBT cards will be blocked at these ATMS.

"Rather than see somebody use their EBT card in one of these establishments inadvertently -without intending to use them to purchase an item that's sold there - I think that it's good to block them, so that people don't become subject to penalties that they shouldn't," Hastedt says.

Those penalties include a one-year suspension from the EBT program the first time an EBT card is used at a prohibited location. A second violation earns a two-year suspension. A third strike, and you're out permanently. 

But Maine's law doesn't prohibit EBT card holders from withdrawing cash from an approved ATM in a supermarket that sells liquor or cigarettes, or at an ATM around the corner from a casino or strip club, and then using that cash to purchase whatever non-essential items they want. 

DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew compares the EBT ATM law to speeding laws. 

"We know that speeding is against the law, but people still do it," she says. "But that doesn't stop us from looking at all of the various ways in which to enforce speeding. And we need to look at all ways possible to ensure that these scarce resources are being used appropriately."

While there was bipartisan support for the bill to restrict EBT card use at liquor, gambling, an adult entertainment venues when the law passed in 2012, Democratic Maine Rep. Drew Gattine says he's surprised it's taken the LePage administration two years to block EBT card use at certain ATMs.

"It seems to me they're more interested in talking about the problem because they think there's some political advantage to that, as opposed to really solving the problem," Gattine says.

Solving the problem of poverty is exactly what Chris Hastedt of Maine Equal Justice Partners hopes Maine officials and lawmakers will focus on in the future.

"If we were to spend as much time on helping people leave poverty behind as has been spent talking about the use of EBT cards at inappropriate venues, I think the state would be better off," she says. "Certainly the families that use EBT cards would be better off."

Mary Mayhew says DHHS constantly mines data to explore how to improve public assistance programs and support families on a pathway to independence.