MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - According to Democrats in the Alabama Legislature, the Republican majority is at it again, targeting poor people who get public assistance. But unlike other times in the past, bills pending in the Legislature to address perceived welfare abuse actually make some sense.
Millions of dollars of public funds are being spent by welfare recipients at casinos and strip clubs around the nation, and Alabama is almost certainly no exception to that phenomenon. Such abuses could be reduced in this state if the Legislature acts in the closing days of the current legislative session.
Another bill pending in the Legislature would require testing of welfare recipients with a proven history of drug abuse.
[DOCUMENT: Drug Testing for Welfare Recipients (.pdf)]
News media reports have disclosed that welfare benefit cards have been used to access millions of dollars in Temporary Assistance to Needy Families funds at casinos, liquor stores, bars and strip clubs in many states.
For instance, a report by the Los Angeles Times said that in a three-year span welfare benefits cards were used to withdraw nearly $4.8 million from ATMs at casinos and poker rooms. The cards also were used at ATMs in strip clubs and bars. Another report from Washington state found $2 million in welfare funds accessed at casinos there.
Since those reports, news organizations in many other states have followed with reports of abuses. The patterns of abuse changed from state to state -- in Georgia, the principal abuses were in liquor stores; in Kansas, cigarette retailers and tobacco shops led the list.
The publicity over the misuse of TANF Electronic Benefit Cards prompted Congress to pass a law requiring states to adopt practices to supposedly end such abuses by 2014.
In Alabama, a bill by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, would bar TANF recipients from using their benefits to buy alcoholic beverages, tobacco and lottery tickets and from using benefits in bars, casinos or strip clubs. The bill also would target welfare cash use in tattoo parlors and strip clubs.
Orr's bill is in a position to pass in the final three work days of the current legislative session.
One point that needs to be made: While the misuse of electronic benefit cards has drawn a lot of attention, the amount represents only a small fraction of the total amount of public assistance given out through TANF cards each year.
Another point: Limiting the use of TANF cards at certain locations won't stop all abuses. TANF is designed to get cash into the hands of needy families. And it will be almost impossible to prevent some abuse of cash benefits.
But despite those points, it makes sense for the Legislature to act on this issue. Such abuses of the TANF program undermine public confidence not only in the TANF program, but in all public assistance programs. Unless the federal government and the states take reasonable steps to stamp out widespread abuses, public support for assistance programs inevitably will erode.
That same logic applies to a bill in the Legislature that would require drug testing of welfare recipients who have had a drug conviction in the past five years.
This bill is a far cry from earlier attempts by the Alabama Legislature to require drug testing for all welfare recipients. Those ill-conceived attempts by legislators were far too sweeping in scope.
A similar law in Florida showed the folly of attempting to drug test all welfare recipients. Fewer than 3 percent of those who took the test in Florida failed it. After paying for the tests for those who passed, Florida actually lost money on the law.
Federal courts have tossed out the Florida law.
(An interesting aside: Since about 6 percent of all Floridians abuse drugs, and since there was no decline in the rate of applications for benefits under the testing law, the results suggest that welfare recipients -- mostly mothers -- actually abuse drugs at less than the rate of the population as a whole.)
Still, the Alabama bill that would limit drug testing to recipients with a proven history of abuse makes sense.
As currently written, recipients who fail an initial test paid for by the state would be required to take an additional test. If they fail that, they would lose access to benefits for themselves. Children would still receive benefits, but another adult relative would have to be designated to handle the children's portion of the funds.
This law probably would affect a very limited number of people, and my guess is that the cost of administering it probably would exceed any savings. However, it could serve as a disincentive for drug use. But more importantly, it might help to preserve public support for Alabama's already limited public assistance programs.
Drug Testing For Legislators?
[DOCUMENT: Drug Testing for Legislators (.pdf)]
The debate over drug testing for welfare recipients had some lawmakers talking about similar testing for legislators.
Don't hold your breath.
In response to criticism of his welfare drug testing bill, Sen. Tripp Pittman, R-Daphne, actually introduced a bill to provide for similar testing for legislators when there is a reasonable suspicion of drug abuse.
Predictably, it hasn't received much attention and is not in a position to pass in this session. My guess it that such a law will never pass.
Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.