Three years of EBT transactions made available online

Ever wanted to see every TANF transaction that took place via Maine EBT card over nearly three years?

Me neither, but now we can.

Gov. Paul LePage released the data (available in Excel format at the link above) on Thursday. The same data was requested in February 2013 by the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, which published an app that lets users comb through the data more easily than does Excel.

I’m not saying the data isn’t interesting, because it is. It’s already dominated one news cycle, after Gov. LePage released a portion of the complete data set that showed 3,701 questionable transactions that appeared to take place at bars, strip clubs and smoke shops. For context, that’s just one-fifth of 1 percent of the state’s total transactions in the time period in question, Jan. 1, 2011, through Nov. 15, 2013.

Steve Robinson, a policy analyst at MHPC and writer for its Maine Wire, said the small percentage of transactions in question doesn’t make the problem any less severe — especially because given the untraceable cash nature of benefits distributed through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and withdrawn from ATMs.

“At a minimum, we know there is abuse going on,” he said Thrusday. “And that points to an unknown magnitude of abuse in the portion that becomes cash.”

Democrats, too, say that any misuse of state welfare dollars are serious, but emphasize the drop-in-the-bucket scope of the problem.

“No amount of fraud should be tolerated — even if 99.8 percent of the program is working,” said Jodi Quintero, spokeswoman for House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick on Thursday. Eves and Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, have sent a letter to Attorney General Janet Mills asking her to review and, if necessary, prosecute any incidents in the data where the law appears to have been broken.

A law passed by the Legislature in 2012 prevented EBT cards from being used at retail establishments where more than 50 percent of sales came from liquor, gambling facilities and purveyors of adult entertainment. Transactions at smoke shops are not illegal, but LePage and others have argued that taxpayer money should not be used on cigarettes.

And more revelations from the data are likely coming as reporters and activists dig through it. The Maine Wire, MHPC’s media arm, has already started spinning stories out from the data. Tales of “Maine Welfare Cash Spent in All 50 States, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands,” cropped up Wednesday, the first in what MHPC said would be a series based on the data set. (Remember, it’s not illegal for welfare recipients to use their EBT cards out of state. You’re allowed to travel, even if you get welfare.)

In an interview Wednesday, LePage said it’s not his intent to cause anyone — welfare recipients or otherwise — any difficulty. But he said every welfare dollar spent inappropriately is one less dollar going to help Mainers in need.

“This is a small percentage of people, but it’s a big dollar amount,” he said.

Maine’s liberal social media maven Gerald Weinand crunched the data on those 3,701 questionable transactions Thursday, finding that they valued more than $250,000. (See? The data is already coming in handy! You can check his math here.)

The EBT transaction data app isn’t MHPC’s first foray into data presentation. The group also runs maineopengov.org, where raw figures on state spending such as salaries, pensions, K-12 education are available. The group is also the leading conservative think tank in the state, with a direct line to the Blaine House — several LePage administration staffers got their starts at MHPC.

Robinson said the data shows the “fundamental lack of accountability” in the EBT system. The cards are loaded with cash benefits from TANF, which can be swiped at the register in participating shops or used at ATMs to withdraw cash.

I plan to really dig into the EBT data tomorrow. I’ll let you know what I find.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story indicated that every EBT transaction from he nearly three-year period was available. The only transactions listed in the data are swipes/withdrawals of TANF benefits. EBT cards also carry benefits from SNAP — formerly food stamps.

Mario Moretto

About Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and, now, in the State House.