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Maine GOP Accused of Taking 'Political Advantage' of Paris Attacks to Drive Welfare Reform

AUGUSTA, Maine — Critics of the Maine Republican Party say it's using the terrorist killings in Paris to drive a signature-gathering effort aimed at its welfare reform agenda.

The party notified its members this week that Maine law currently allows Electronic Benefit Transfer cards to be used to wire money to foreign countries. That would end, say party officials, under proposed reforms contained in a citizen initiative question the party wants to place on next year's ballot.

The Maine Republican Party continues its push to lower the state's income tax rate and reform welfare laws through two citizen initiative questions. It faces a deadline of Jan. 31 to gather enough signatures to get on the fall ballot.

In an attempt to recruit more signature gatherers, state party Chairman Rick Bennett sent out an email Tuesday to party members asking for help in stopping a practice that's allowed under current law.

"There's no reason that Maine's precious taxpayer dollars that are meant to help the truly needy should be able to sent in wire transfers to foreign countries," says Jason Savage, the party's executive director.

The LePage Administration has also raised questions about alleged EBT card abuses, including recipients using benefits to buy drugs, cigarettes and alcoholic beverages, and making purchases in strip clubs and casinos. And Savage says that no one should doubt that the cards are being used for foreign transactions.

"I can't tell you that we know exactly how many dollars or how many wire transfers are done but we do know that they have been done and we feel that it's important to stop that, because that loophole just doesn't need to exist and there's no justification for taking the dollars that Maine taxpayers pay to help people who are in need and allowing them to be just directly wired right out of the country," Savage says.

And in the aftermath of the terrorist killings in Paris and this week's threat by the Islamic State to stage similar attacks in Washington, D.C., Savage says it's important that the taxpayers know where their money, in the form of welfare benefits, is going.

"There is a possibility that that money could be going to people who are not friends of the United States, we have no way to control the recipients of that money," Savage says.

"This proposal is really an example of fear-mongering at its worst," says Robyn Merrill, executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners, an Augusta-based advocacy group for the poor.

Merrill says the GOP is using fear and bigotry to rally ITS base. But she says the GOP is really hurting single mothers in Maine who rely on up to $485 a month in cash benefits under the federally funded Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program that can be accessed with an EBT card.

"The vast majority of people who would be impacted by this are single moms raising kids on their own, and it's a very modest benefit and it typically goes toward rent — if it covers the whole rent, sometimes it doesn't even cover the rent, but it goes toward that," Merrill says.

She says she is not aware of any instances in which EBT cards have been used to fund wire transfers to foreign countries, a conclusion shared by Rep. Drew Gattine, a Westbrook Democrat who chairs the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee, which oversees EBT policies.

Gattine says policies regulating the use of EBT cards are set by the federal government and he questions the timing of the GOP call to action coupled with Gov. Paul LePage's decision to block Syrian refugees from resettling in Maine in the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks.

"The bodies of the dead have not yet been buried and the people who are critically injured are still lying in hospitals and you see people trying to take political advantage over that situation — I think it ought to make people in Maine very angry," Gattine says.

Supporters of the welfare reform initiative will have to gather 62,000 signatures by the end of January to qualify for the fall 2016 ballot.