Public assistance legislation scheduled to go before Senate

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Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, seen here on Sept. 30, 2013, is sponsoring three bills related to public assistance.  (Montgomery Advertiser, Lloyd Gallman)

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, seen here on Sept. 30, 2013, is sponsoring three bills related to public assistance. (Montgomery Advertiser, Lloyd Gallman)

The Senate Tuesday afternoon is scheduled to take up several bills regulating and, in some cases, restricting use of and qualification for public assistance in the state.

The five pieces of legislation would also require drug testing for certain public assistance recipients, and make it a crime, punishable by up to 10 years in prison in some cases, to commit public assistance fraud.

The bills are:

– SB 63, sponsored by Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Daphne, which would require the Department of Human Resource to drug test those applying for benefits in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program the department has “reasonable suspicion” of using illegal drugs. The bill defines “reasonable suspicion” as a conviction for use or distribution of a drug within five years of applying for benefits, or having previously tested positive for a controlled substance.

– SB 87, sponsored by Sen. Bryan Taylor, R-Prattville, which would forbid DHR from seeking waivers requiring able-bodied adults without dependents receiving Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to work at least 20 hours a week. The federal stimulus bill in 2009 allowed states to receive waivers from the requirements, and a number of states, including Alabama, applied for the waivers. The farm bill passed by Congress earlier this year also eliminates waivers from workforce requirements in times of economic duress.

– SB 114, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, which would make it a crime to fraudulently obtain public assistance. Fraudulently obtaining assistance worth less than $200 would be a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $6,000. Fraud worth more than $200 would be a Class C Felony, punishable by up to ten years in prison and a $15,000 fine.

– SB 115, sponsored by Orr, which would require a TANF applicant to apply for at least three jobs before completing an application, and three jobs for each week the applicant receives welfare. Those who voluntarily quit their jobs would also be ineligible for public assistance.

– SB 116, sponsored by Orr, which would ban recipients of public assistance from using benefits to purchase alcohol, tobacco or lottery tickets. The bill also specifically prohibits the spending benefits in bars, casinos, psychic parlors and strip clubs.

In the last report available, DHR reported a monthly average of 21,960 cases of recipients receiving financial assistance in the 2012 fiscal year. The average monthly payment was $188.38 per case. Over 411,000 households that year received SNAP benefits, representing 910,244 recipients. The vast majority of those — 775,813 — were non-public assistance recipients.

It was not immediately clear Tuesday how widespread public assistance spending on alcohol, casinos and strip clubs was.

“The only way we would have any knowledge of that is if someone sent a personal complaint,” said Barry Spear, a spokesman for DHR. “We don’t have any way to track how they spend their money. It’s a cash benefit.”

– posted by Brian Lyman

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