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LePage Threatens to Cede Control of Food Stamp Program Over Junk Food Ban

The LePage administration continues to tangle with the federal government for greater control over its welfare programs. Now the governor is threatening to give up administration of a $250 million food stamp program if the federal government doesn’t allow Maine to prohibit the purchase of sugary snacks and drinks with benefit cards.

Nearly a dozen states have requested a so-called junk food waiver from the federal government. But despite the political popularity of such bans, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which funds and oversees state food stamp programs, has never granted such a waiver. Gov. Paul LePage is attempting to force the issue, threatening to cede control of a program that last month provided benefits to more than 195,000 Mainers if the feds don’t approve its request for a pilot project.

“The governor knows how to get attention and he’s serious,” says Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s spokeswoman, on the Bangor radio station WVOM. “This isn’t the first time that he’s said the program could be at risk.”

That’s Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s spokeswoman, talking to Bangor radio station WVOM on Tuesday. Bennett was discussing a scathing June 17 letter that the governor wrote to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. In the letter, LePage says that the federal government sends mixed messages about nutrition. On one hand, he says the federal government “polices” the menus of public school cafeterias with nutritional guidelines. On the other, it allows taxpayers to finance a “steady diet of Mars bars and Mountain Dew” through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps.

LePage says he can no longer suffer the hypocrisy, and he advised Vilsack to start browsing the Maine classifieds for commercial real estate — presumably to set up shop and takeover administration of food stamps.

“That’s what the governor is asking for, he asking for compromise and we think it’s a reasonable compromise that’s actually going to help the people of our state,” says Bennett. “And it’s simply the right thing to do.”

But the governor’s letter didn’t sound like compromise to Rep. Drew Gattine, the lead Democrat on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.

“To me this is really just part of a pattern of this administration picking fights, frankly, that really aren’t necessary to be picked,” Gattine says.

Gattine hasn’t seen the USDA’s June 8 letter to the LePage administration which outlines a series of deficiencies with the state’s request. They include an inability to determine whether a test junk food ban actually influenced food stamp recipients’ behavior. That’s because, according to the federal government, Maine’s proposal didn’t include any agreements from food retailers to provide data about what kind of foods were purchased with benefit cards.

Also, the USDA letter doesn’t deny the administration’s request. It suggests alternatives, such as limits, restrictions and disincentives on junk food purchases that can be applied to food stamp recipients and other customers.

Finally, Gattine says it’s not clear whether Maine can simply give up administration of its program, as LePage has threatened to do.

“I don’t know if it’s legally possible, and it’s certainly not feasible, for Maine to give up administration of the food stamp program,” says Gattine. “I think that would be pretty unprecedented.”

A spokeswoman for the USDA did not respond to a request to address the governor’s letter before air time.

The governor’s threat is the latest development in a long battle between his administration and the federal government over the state’s welfare programs. LePage has repeatedly clashed with the feds over a number of proposals that advocates for the poor say demonize and punish the state’s most vulnerable. The proposals include photos on EBT cards, restrictions on benefits and cuts to MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program. Some of the administration’s proposals have gone to court. Meanwhile, the governor has repeatedly made the disputes public. That’s because changes to the welfare system have helped him, and Republican legislators, at the ballot box.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.