By Gillian Graham

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services on Tuesday announced a new rule to ban food stamps for major lottery and gambling winners.

The new rule allows for the immediate termination of benefits when a welfare recipient collects winnings of $5,000 or more in one calendar month, the department announced in a press release. The prize will continue to count as an asset that could disqualify a person from welfare under the asset limits recently adopted by the LePage administration.

A law passed this year bars people from spending welfare money on lottery tickets, tobacco, liquor and bail. And in January the department introduced asset testing that requires people who apply for food stamps to disclose their assets. If assets exceed $5,000, some applicants are ineligible for benefits.

"This rule is consistent with recent Congressional reforms regarding the food stamp program and lottery winnings designed to ensure that this taxpayer funded benefit is appropriately supporting those who truly need the welfare assistance," DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew said in a prepared statement. "Just like when we limited the amount of assets someone could have while receiving welfare benefits, this change ensures individuals are not using the program when they don't need it. It allows taxpayers to have faith in the system and know their tax dollars are going where they are most needed."

The department found that since 2015 there were 4,856 winning tickets of $1,000 or more that were cashed by 3,685 individuals who were receiving food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits or MaineCare at the time they won. The winners received more than $22 million in prizes while on welfare programs, according to the department.

"In no way, shape or form should taxpayers be asked to foot the bill for someone who is gambling and winning huge amounts of money," Mayhew said. "Welfare benefits shouldn't be used for gambling or lottery, and someone who beats the long odds and 'wins big' shouldn't continue receiving assistance while he or she has that money. Along with our recent ban on using welfare benefits to purchase lottery tickets, this rule makes sure that taxpayers aren't subsidizing gambling or giving benefits to those who have other means."

Assets considered when determining eligibility for welfare programs include the balance of bank accounts, snowmobiles, boats, motorcycles, jet skis, all-terrain vehicles, recreational vehicles, campers and other valuables. Assets considered do not include equity in a home or a household's primary vehicle.

(c)2016 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine)