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Curb on use of welfare cash OK’d

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / April 27, 2011

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House lawmakers voted unanimously last night 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 store owners 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,’’ said Representative Shaunna O’Connell, a newly elected Taunton Republican.

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.

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.

They have said in the past that it would be logistically difficult and costly to limit the cards’ use.

In a statement last night, the governor said he looks forward to reviewing the House ban, should it pass the Senate and reach his desk.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.