Maine loses the race for $1.4 million in a photo finish

If the news from our nation’s capital is giving you a headache, the news from Augusta may provide some relief. Our Legislature surpasses Congress when it comes to civility, functionality and efficiency.

Introduce a bill in Maine and it gets assigned to a committee composed of both House and Senate members. The bill gets one “LD” (legislative document) number under which one can follow all the proceedings involving that bill.

Each bill gets a public hearing, and then sufficient work sessions to allow the committee to explore the pros and cons. A unanimous “no” vote from the committee consigns the bill to the dead file. “Yes” votes, even from just one committee member, take the bill to the floor of both chambers to be voted up or down.

In Congress, not so much. Each chamber has its own committees where the bill must survive. There are tactics to delay, to hold, to filibuster, to fold, to spindle, to mutilate. A separate bill sets forth the terms of debate. In essence, they are not all that dissimilar, but at the federal level it feels like going through the legislative process wearing the special gloves and eyeglasses that simulate what it’s like to drive under the influence.

It is not all orderliness and progress in Augusta. Take the recent news story of Maine’s refusal to implement a benefit card system for the WIC program. WIC is a federal program to provide “supplemental nutrition” for women, infants and children.

As currently run, the program is on the cumbersome side. The feds are requiring states to shift from a paper-based system to an electronic benefit card, and the state is refusing to go along.

Ironically, the benefit cards are meant to tighten the security of the program as well as provide greater privacy for those receiving benefits. Mary Mayhew, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, isn’t having any of it. She is insisting on having participants’ photos on the card, a stipulation not required by any other state in the country.

So far, Maine has forfeited $1.4 million of implementation money. In addition, it would cost an estimated $200,000 to add the photos. The state still faces the requirement but now is several million shy of the funding to implement it.

If that weren’t enough, federal law prohibits clerks from asking to see the benefit card at the point of sale. What earthly good will it do to have a photo on the card if a clerk may not ask to see it?

Ladies and gentlemen, this program provides a small amount of assistance for nutrition education and for the purchase of food including eggs, milk, cheese, tofu, peas, beans and whole grain bread and cereal. It provides vouchers for fresh fruits and vegetables from Maine farmers markets, too.

There are over 20,000 Mainers enrolled. The shift to a paperless system is supported by most grocers, who found the old system cumbersome and confusing.

Commissioner Mayhew’s misguided decision to defy federal law is costing us millions. Given her boss’s penchant for frugality, it is strange that Governor LePage has given her free rein on this one.

This is reminiscent of the battle in Maine over “Real ID,” a fight that comes with the full support of the Legislature, which in 2007 voted against compliance with new federal requirements for Maine drivers’ licenses.

This battle may not have as big a price tag, but it will mean that by 2018 Mainers will need a passport, a military ID or a permanent resident card to board an airplane, even for a domestic flight. State Sen. Bill Diamond had this one right. “We can get into these philosophical debates, but people have to get on airplanes.”

What is it with Maine? For Real ID we are refusing to provide more personal information, but for WIC we want to put people’s photos on additional documents. A little inconsistent, no?

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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