By Dave Sherwood
BRUNSWICK, Maine, Nov 21 (Reuters) - The federal government has threatened to cut funding for Maine's food stamp program, saying the state may be violating recipients' civil rights by requiring welfare cards to bear their photograph.
Maine began printing photos on electronic benefit (EBT) cards in July in an effort that Republican Governor Paul LePage said was designed to combat fraud.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers funding for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), said in a letter on Thursday that the state was now "at risk of losing Federal financial participation."
"Any individual who applies for SNAP on behalf of eligible household members must be able to access the program without fear," USDA regional administrator Kurt Messner wrote in the letter to Maine's Department of Health and Human Services, adding that a photo ID requirement on benefit cards could have a "chilling effect" on prospective applicants.
Maine's food stamp program costs some $360 million per year, all of which is paid for by the federal government. It was not clear if all of the funding was at risk.
Thursday's letter from the USDA followed an August inspection in Maine in which USDA staff said they found evidence Maine was requiring the photos.
Maine Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew called the allegations misleading.
"We do not believe that a policy putting photos on EBT cards has a 'chilling effect' on their appropriate use any more than putting photos on drivers licenses has a 'chilling effect' on driving," she said. She added that printing photos on welfare cards was indeed optional, but that only around 100 of the more than 21,000 recipients had declined.
"The feds objective in coming to Maine was nothing more than an attempt to undermine our ongoing efforts to reduce fraud, waste and abuse in welfare programs," she said.
The Maine photo ID program is part of a broader crackdown on welfare fraud by LePage, who is backed by Tea Party conservatives and was re-elected this month after a contentious three-way race during which he pledged to overhaul the state's welfare system.
Maine is not the first state to require the photos but the federal government set special rules for those states, which also include Massachusetts and New York.
(Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Susan Heavey)