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I-Team: Millions of Maine welfare dollars spent out of state

AUGUSTA (WGME) — Some Mainers receiving taxpayer funded welfare benefits are using their benefits in places like Florida, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services.

It's legal to spend welfare benefits out of state, but a Maine state lawmaker says he's seen enough and wants to change that.

The I-Team has been looking into this issue since 2014. Three years ago we first discovered millions of dollars of Maine welfare benefits being used out of state.

"I think it's time to get serious about the problems of welfare abuse," said State Senator Eric Brakey (R-Auburn).

Brakey said one of those problems is Mainers spending their welfare benefits out of state.

"Maine welfare dollars are being spent in all 50 states across the country, including Florida, Hawaii; we found transactions at Disney World," Brakey said.

From Florida theme parks to Las Vegas casinos, according to numbers from DHHS, from 2011 to 2015, $65 million welfare dollars were spent out state, including $3.7 million in Florida and $5.2 million in Massachusetts.

"What that really tells us is for some people in Maine's welfare program these dollars are not being used the way they're intended — to support family in time of crisis," Brakey said.

DHHS didn't respond to a request on Tuesday for out-of-state spending in 2016.

Brakey has a introduced a new bill that would prohibit Mainers from using at least some of their taxpayer funded welfare benefits out of state. He wants to require TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) dollars be spent only in Maine.

"It really misunderstands the lives of the families that would be effected by it," said Chris Hastedt with Maine Equal Justice Partners.

Hastedt said most Mainers getting welfare benefits don't misuse them because they are living in deep poverty and need the money.

She said there are legitimate reasons why Mainers may need to use their welfare benefits in another state and Brakey's proposal could hurt the people the state is trying to help.

"We live in a state that borders New Hampshire and people often that live close to the border find it more convenient or cost effective," she said.

According to records provided by DHHS, from 2011-2015, $43 million in Maine welfare benefits were spent in New Hampshire.

Similar bills have been through the legislature before and never made it far.

Sen. Brakey said as his proposal moves through the process this time, they'll be looking at legitimate reasons why Mainers may need to use their welfare benefits out of state and consider those exceptions.

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