Senate approves package of public assistance bills

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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 Alabama Senate Wednesday evening passed five bills regulating and, in some cases, restricting the use of and qualification for public benefits.

The approval of the legislation was relatively smooth, a day after Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, abruptly adjourned the Senate during a debate over one of the bills, following attempts to amend the legislation. Senate Republicans did accept an amendment on one of the bills; on three of the five, they invoked cloture.

The five bills that passed were:

– SB 63, sponsored by Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Daphne, would require the state Department of Human Resources to drug test public assistance recipients they have reasonable suspicion of using drugs. Reasonable suspicion in the bill is defined as having a conviction in the previous five years for use or distribution of a controlled substance, or a previous positive test.

The bill had sparked a lengthy debate on Tuesday, with Democrats citing previous attempts to drug test public assistance recipients in states like Florida. Florida’s program found a tiny percentage of individuals using controlled substances; a federal judge late last year found the program violated constitutional protections against search and seizure. Republicans noted that Florida’s program mandated drug testing for all applicants, while Pittman’s bill was specifically aimed at certain individuals.

The Senate approved an amendment to the legislation that would sunset the provisions of the bill in 2017, barring action by lawmakers at that time.

– SB 87, sponsored by Sen. Bryan Taylor, R-Prattville, which would forbid DHR from seeking statewide 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.

DHR had expressed concerns that the legislation would prevent them for applying for waivers for counties experiencing high unemployment, or after natural disasters. Taylor said after the vote he had planned an amendment to address the issue, but was unable to bring it up due to a cloture vote.

– 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 fine. Fraud of more than $200 would be a Class C Felony, punishable by up to 10 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. Those who voluntarily quit their jobs also would be ineligible for public assistance.

The bill passed the Senate, but not without criticism from Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, who said that in some areas of the state jobs were hard to come by. Singleton, whose district includes Greenetrack and who was arrested during a raid of the facility in 2010, said that those raids had eliminated employment in poor areas.

“We talk about people not wanting to work,” he said. “Well, people had jobs and we shut them down.”

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

Orr said after the vote the legislation would bring the state in line with federal requirements for the legislation. DHR says because the benefits are cash-based, it is impossible to measure how much money is actually spent by public assistance recipients on these items. Orr said the bill would ensure that benefits are spent on family needs.

“If you get the bill passed, DHR will be required to inform recipients of the rules in place with regards to the purchases they can make,” Orr said.

DHR, which initially said enforcement of the provision could exceed a cap on administrative costs, said Wednesday they had determined the cost of enforcing the bill would be nominal.

The package now moves onto the House.

– posted by Brian Lyman

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