published Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

Alabama legislators seek tougher welfare rules

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Two Alabama senators are finding support for bills aimed at toughening the laws on welfare benefits, including requiring drug testing of some welfare applicants.

The Senate Fiscal Responsibility and Accountability Committee overwhelmingly approved four bills Wednesday that are sponsored by Republican Sens. Trip Pittman of Daphne and Arthur Orr of Decatur. The bills now go to the Senate, where Pittman's and Orr's roles as chairmen of the two Senate budget committees virtually assure them of getting the bills up for debate.

The bills apply to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, the cash assistance program commonly called welfare. TANF is different from food stamps because it can be used for a variety of household expenses. Like food stamps, it comes on an electronic card similar to a credit card.

Pittman's bill provides drug testing for welfare applicants who have had a misdemeanor or felony drug conviction in the past five years. After three failed tests, they would lose their benefits permanently, but their family members would keep their benefits. The loss in Temporary Assistance to Needy Families would be $25 to $30 a month. Even with the small loss, Pittman said the legislation would encourage welfare applicants to lead responsible lives and would show taxpayers that the Legislature is being accountable with their tax dollars.

If the bill passes the Legislature and gets signed by the governor, the main impact would be on misdemeanor convictions because Alabama already bans welfare benefits for felony drug convictions.

Orr's bills strengthen the penalties for lying to get welfare benefits, require applicants for welfare to have applied for three jobs, and prohibit liquor stores, bars, tattoo parlors, psychic networks and strip clubs from taking the electronic cards that carry the welfare benefits.

The federal government is requiring all states to have laws or regulations banning the use of electronic welfare benefit cards at liquor stores, casinos and bars by next month. Orr said his bill goes beyond the requirement by adding other businesses that have nothing to do with maintaining a family during tough times.

Orr said his job application bill is designed to get people to look for work before seeking government assistance. He said three Southeastern states — Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina — have enacted similar laws requiring job searches to precede welfare applications. "If they haven't looked for a job, why should we turn around and reward them?" he said.

Democratic Sen. Linda Coleman said it could be hard for jobless people to find places to put in three job applications in some rural counties with high unemployment. "It's a feel good bill that gives false hope," she said.

One of Orr's bills makes it easier for prosecutors to bring charges against people who lie on welfare applications. Alabama already is aggressive about prosecuting people who lie to get unemployment benefits. The state Department of Labor, which administers those benefits, reports six successful prosecutions so far this month. The punishment for those is usually a suspended sentence and a requirement to repay the money received.

John Hardy, spokesman for the Alabama Department of Human Resources, said the welfare agency is working with Orr and Pittman to make sure their bills are written so that they can be implemented, but Alabama doesn't have a history of widespread welfare abuse.

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