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Maine photo welfare ID program draws fire from U.S.

By Dave Sherwood

BOWDOINHAM Maine (Reuters) - Maine began printing photos on welfare cards Tuesday despite warnings from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that the move, which the state's Republican governor said is necessary to combat fraud, could cost it federal funding.

While Maine is not the first U.S. state to make such a move - Massachusetts and New York have similar programs - the USDA Food and Nutrition Service warned it had not finished its review of the program and called on Governor Paul LePage to delay the move.

"We are strongly urging that you delay statewide implementation until FNS receives and can fully review and approve the state's plan," wrote acting director Kurt Messner, who warned the state might otherwise risk losing federal welfare funding.

A spokesman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services said it had notified the federal government of the plan months ago and called the USDA's role "advisory in nature."

The cards are similar to debit cards issued by banks. Benefits recipients use them to buy food and other necessities from grocery stores, with money added to the recipient's account each month.

The Maine program, which prints recipient photos on the cards, as well as a message that misuse is a crime, is part of a broader crackdown on welfare fraud by the Tea Party-backed LePage, who earlier this year released data showing a small number of cash withdrawals with Maine electronic benefit cards as far away as the U.S. Virgin Islands, Hawaii and Puerto Rico.

"We can't waste time playing games with Washington," said LePage in a radio address earlier this year outlining the program. "We are taking action. We have already started cracking down on welfare fraud because we know how important it is to ensure your taxpayer dollars are spent appropriately."

Though federal law allows states to mandate photo ID on the cards, the USDA had expressed concerns that the program could violate rights of beneficiaries, who by federal law cannot be treated differently than other credit or debit cardholders.

(Editing by Scott Malone and Jim Loney)

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