Two Missouri senators are reaching across the aisle in order to stop low-income people from spending welfare benefits on alcohol and entertainment.
Sens. Will Kraus and Maria Chappelle-Nadal outlined their measure at a news conference Monday which would prevent welfare recipients from spending their electronic benefits at liquor stores, casinos and adult entertainment establishments.
Senate Bill 251 would limit where public benefits to help needy families could be used.
Missouri has until 2014 to adopt such prohibitions in order to comply with a federal law passed last year. The state would risk losing 5 percent of its funding for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Benefits program, which oversees and distributes welfare benefits. But the Senate legislation would go past the federal requirements, also barring them from spending welfare benefits on lottery tickets or at amusement parks, zoos and museums.
Several recent KCTV5 investigations revealed more than $3.2 million in cash benefits that were supposed to help needy families. The money was pulled out of ATM's, including some at nonfamily friendly locations all over the world.
The Senate's judiciary committee conducted a hearing on the proposal Monday. No one testified in opposition to the bill at the hearing.
"You'll notice there is no lobbyist up here with us, lobbying us to get this done. We took it upon ourselves because we feel its the right thing to do," Sen. Will Kraus, R-Lee's Summit, said.
Under the bill, offenders who repeatedly misuse their welfare money could be convicted of a felony and end up in prison. The measure would also target business owners who knowingly accept electronic benefits transactions on banned items, fining them $500 on the first offense and more than $1,000 on subsequent charges.
"Anytime there is an abuse or misuse of state dollars, especially for the poor, it needs to be addressed," Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, said.
Chapple-Nadal says tax payer funded vacations for some cardholders would be over.
"We have seen a long list of TANF/EBT cards that have been used. If its one or two people, that is too many," Chapple-Nadal said. "These funds are supposed to be used for families that are in need and specifically for children who are in need. When I heard that there are people using these cards at casinos and at strip clubs and out of town on possible vacations, I was dismayed."
The bill's sponsors didn't come to a consensus overnight.
Last year, Kraus pushed for legislation that would have required photo identification on the physical electronic benefits card. Chappelle-Nadal opposed that legislation and said it could have reduced welfare money for children by placing restrictions on who could make purchases with the electronic card.
"I am looking at what we can get accomplished. Obviously we hit some roadblocks last time. I would rather make a step forward on preventing fraud and put the things that are maybe controversial in the rear seat at this point," Kraus said.
Both sponsors said the bill would not totally eliminate welfare fraud.
Oversight and enforcement would be left up to investigators at the Department of Social Services to search through page after page of transactions looking for offenders that are not using benefits designed to help their family get back on their feet.
At least 21 other states have considered bills limiting the types of purchases and transactions allowed on the public benefit cards.
Improper welfare spending at casinos is the subject of an ongoing state audit, announced by Auditor Tom Sweich last November.
Copyright 2013 KCTV (Meredith Corp.) and The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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