House lawmakers voted unanimously today to ban welfare recipients from spending their cash benefits on alcohol, tobacco and Lottery tickets, reigniting an issue that flared during Governor Deval Patrick’s reelection campaign last year.
The House approved the ban, as part of a larger amendment to the state budget, on a 155-0 vote.
The measure not only targets welfare recipients, it also bans storeowners from accepting welfare debit cards for purchases of alcohol, tobacco and Lottery tickets. Store owners who violate the ban could be fined $500 for the first offense, and more than $1,000 for subsequent offenses.
“It will prevent further scamming of the system and abuse of taxpayer dollars,” Representative Shaunna O’Connell, a newly elected Taunton Republican, told her House colleagues in her maiden floor speech.
No one spoke in opposition to the ban.
Controversy surrounding the use of welfare benefits erupted during the governor’s race last year, when the Republican nominee, Charles D. Baker, printed mock welfare cards with the governor's name that were to be used for “booze, cash, cigarettes and/or Lottery tickets.”
Patrick, who grew up on welfare, called the tactic “despicable” and pointed out that he has supported a bill that would make it a crime to use or accept the cards for liquor or cigarettes.
About 450,000 households in Massachusetts use welfare debit cards, which are programmed to allow only the purchase of groceries.
But about 50,000 households use the same cards for a different program, which costs the state and federal government about $400 million a year.
Credit on those cards can be converted directly into cash, so that qualified users can pay landlords and others who may not be able to accept a debit card, according to state officials. State officials have said in the past that it would be logistically difficult and costly to limit the cards' use.
But O’Connell cited newspaper anecdotes to assert that the cards were being used for "unnecessary items" like alcohol.
“I’m very pleased we were able to work on this issue in a bipartisan fashion to come up with a workable solution for safeguarding tax dollars,” she said.
In a statement tonight, the governor said he looks forward to reviewing the House's ban, should it pass the Senate and reach his desk.
"The Administration continues to support prohibiting the use of EBT cards to purchase alcohol and tobacco products and is in the process of reviewing the language in the House amendment to ensure that it is enforceable," Jennifer Kritz, an administration spokeswoman, said in a statement.
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