MONTGOMERY, Alabama -- An Alabama state senator is pushing a bill that would prohibit Alabamians from using welfare benefits to buy booze, cigarettes, lap dances or advice on the psychic hotline.
Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, prefiled a bill for the 2013 session that would prohibit people from using their benefits in, or making cash withdrawals at, bars, casinos, tattoo parlors, strip clubs or facilities that offer psychic services. The proposal also would prohibit people from using the benefits to buy alcoholic beverages and cigarettes and fine any business that lets them do so.
"I think to prevent some of these, or all of these, type transactions would hopefully mean the money will go where it is intended to go, which is for the support of the children," Orr said.
"If hard-working taxpayers are footing the bill for tattoos and psychic hotlines, they ought to be incensed. I certainly am," Orr said.
Lawmakers in states across the country are trying to implement restrictions on the use of welfare benefits. Saying they are trying to prevent the waste and abuse of taxpayer money, at least 10 states have implemented new policies or laws, while opponents question the enforceability or need for the measures at all.
Assistance to poor families comes mainly from two programs -- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps; and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which is commonly thought of as welfare. Decades ago, people got food stamps and a welfare check. Now, both benefits are loaded on a single Electronic Benefit Transfer card, which works much like a debit card.
There is programming associated with the card that flags the purchase of items not allowed under SNAP such as alcohol, said Department of Human Resources spokesman Barry Spear.
But TANF does not carry such restrictions, and recipients can use the card like a debit card to make ATM withdrawals or purchases.
"It has always been a cash program," Spear said.
"We do take very seriously that people do use benefits responsibly. We do think the majority of the people on the program do use the money responsibly," Spear said.
Spear said the department does not have a position on Orr's legislation.
When people got welfare checks or deposits, there was little the state could do to police how they used the money. But Orr said that, since the state has the capability of programming EBT cards to restrict purchases with SNAP benefits, they should do the same for TANF benefits.
"It is -- I don't want to say easy -- but it is a very possible thing to do," Orr said.
The bill parallels new requirements handed down from Congress to crack down on TANF benefits. Under legislation signed by President Barack Obama in February, states were required to prevent TANF benefits from being used at liquor stores, casinos and strip clubs.
States have two years to implement the changes and could face penalties if they fail to make adequate progress. Spear said the department has adopted a policy and will be in discussions with the vendor that does EBT card programming to arrange restrictions for TANF.
State bill tougher
Orr's bill goes further than the national legislation, with additional restrictions and penalties for violators.
Violators would be disqualified from receiving cash or EBT benefits for one month on a first offense; three months on a second violation and permanently on a third violation.
A person or business that lets a person buy alcohol or tobacco products with the benefits would be fined: $100 for the first violation, $500 for the second violation within five years and $1,000 for a third violation within five years.
However, a potential loophole is that a TANF recipient still could go down the street to an ATM, withdraw funds, and go back to the bar, strip club or wherever.
Orr acknowledged that enforcement could be a challenge, but he said the state shouldn't be making it easy for people to use their TANF benefits in places such as casinos.
"If people want to try to circumvent the system that is certainly possible. Now the bill says you are not to spend your TANF benefits in such places, but .Â¤.Â¤. enforcement will be a challenge," Orr said.
"But I think we will make a substantial improvement over the current state of affairs," Orr said.
TANF provides temporary cash assistance aimed at helping people get back on their feet financially. Spear said there are work and education requirements associated with the program.
In May there were 20,858 Alabama families -- totaling 49,545 people -- receiving TANF, with an average monthly payment of $79.93 per person.
The federal law puts a 60-month lifetime cap on benefits, but Spear said department numbers show people are on the program for an average of three years.
Alabama TANF benefits are modest compared to other states. The benefits are the fourth-lowest in the country, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Orr said he did not have an indication of how much TANF money in Alabama is being misused, but he has heard anecdotal evidence from store clerks and seen studies in other states.
"Is everyone receiving these benefits abusing them? Absolutely not. My hope would be that it is a small group," Orr said.
The senator said he became interested in the issue after getting a telephone call from a disgusted store clerk. "The cashier says, 'I'm sick and tired of people buying beer and cigarettes (with EBT cards),'" Orr recalled.
Eleven states have implemented some sort of restrictions on TANF, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Arizona prohibits the purchase of lottery tickets and prohibits gaming facilities from having ATMs that accept EBT cards.
Washington doesn't allow TANF to be used for gambling, alcohol, tobacco, tattoos or at strip clubs. Missouri requires a photo ID for TANF benefits.
A House Democrat questioned the need for such a bill.
"It's Republican rhetoric. That is all it is," said Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham.
But Orr said it erodes taxpayer confidence when tax dollars are wasted.
Spear did not have an estimate on what reprogramming the cards would cost the state.
Orr said that, since the state has to have something in place by 2014 addressing the federal legislation, he didn't think it would be "cost punitive" to add the other restrictions called for in his bill.
"If the funds that we spend to deny these transactions go to the children who need it, to me it is money well spent," he said.