The Missouri House has given initial approval to a bill that would place restrictions on benefits commonly referred to as welfare and add far-reaching penalties for misusing them.
Among other things, the measure would prohibit recipients from cashing out benefits at an ATM machine. That provision is already coming under fire from watchdog groups.
Jeanette Mott Oxford with Empower Missouri, a social welfare organization, contends states cannot legislate to effectively block recipients from accessing cash. She cites a similar effort in Kansas where the federal government threatened to withdraw funding before the state decided not to implement the law.
But the bill’s sponsor, Republican Representative J. Eggleston of Maysville, perhaps anticipated such a complication when he offered an amendment to seek a federal waiver in order to implement the ATM restriction.
Eggleston says the provision would be dropped if the waiver wasn’t granted. The House has voted to adopt his amendment.
The legislation also more clearly identifies items prohibited from purchase and businesses where welfare purchases can or cannot be made. Those businesses include places such as strip bars, casinos and liquor stores. Items such as cigarettes are banned from purchase.
Another amendment that has been successfully adopted into the bill during floor debate would significantly increase penalties for misuse of welfare money by recipients.
Those found to have violated spending guidelines one time would lose their benefits for three months while a second offense would carry a six-month penalty. People found to have misused welfare benefits for the third time would lose their benefits for five years.
Representative Hannah Kelly, R-Mountain Grove, who sponsored the amendment, says it’s important to make the best use of tax dollars for those in need.
“All of us have folks in dire need across our districts, all across the state of Missouri,” says Kelly. “And we’ve got to make sure that we’re prioritizing our funds for the folks who need it and bringing accountability to the folks who are trying to work the system.”
Some Democrats complain that the punishment for a third offense would be overly harsh, noting that a five-year ban would be greater than the current lifetime eligibility for the benefits of 45 months. Currently, those who misuse welfare funds are only required to pay back the equivalent of the disallowed purchases.
Eggleston’s bill needs one more favorable vote to advance to the Senate.
The measure applies to the use of welfare money which is now known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and for the use of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, also known as food stamps.
The bill adds pornography to the list of items that are prohibited from being purchased with TANF or SNAP benefits using an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card.
Before Kelly’s amendment changed the legislation, Eggleston originally proposed a maximum penalty for a third-time misuse of TANF or SNAP funds to be a two-year loss of benefits.
Representative Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, complains that the ban on ATM withdrawals prevents people from accessing services at cash-only businesses.
“We fight every year in this body about how we’re going to spend money,” says Quade. “And you’re trying to take money away from people at the ATM for vital services, potentially, if they need it for the laundromat, and then taking money away from all these great services that we fight for.”
Rep. Bruce Franks, D-St. Louis, says the ban on purchases at liquor stores raises problems in his district where there are no traditional grocery stores to get things like bread and other essential foods.
“If we have this particular area where we don’t know what a liquor store is defined as, and these are the only places that folks in my community and other communities have to go, and they’re on this prohibited list, that’s a problem in itself.”