NASHVILLE — Hundreds of thousands of Tennessee adults who are on TennCare, food stamps and/or welfare would undergo an enhanced income-verification process that regularly checks their incomes against other state and federal databases under a bill that cleared the state House Monday night.
The GOP-majority House approved the measure, sponsored by Rep. Dan Howell, R-Georgetown, on a largely partisan 73-21 vote.
Howell said the bill is intended to detect fraud and ensure benefits are going to those who truly need it while saving taxpayers money.
One feature of the legislation would require the Tennessee Education Lottery to send monthly data on all lottery players who win $5,000 or more jackpots to the state Human Services Department.
The department determines eligibility for TennCare (Medicaid), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) and the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (welfare) programs.
Democrats spent their time largely questioning the lottery-related impacts on families in which a parent or caretaker plays and wins larger lottery awards that could cost them their benefits.
Howell argued that lottery winners on state and federally-subsidized social programs are already supposed to self report and his bill simply ensures it's properly done.
Speaking later with a reporter, Howell appeared a little surprised that no one got into the overall aspects of his bill, called the "Program Integrity Act of 2017."
"That [cross checking lottery winner database] is just a small part of it," Howell said. "What we've done is create enhanced verification."
The Senate has yet to take up the legislation.
Howell said in the interview that Arkansas has a somewhat similar program and found they were paying 500 people "who did not live in Arkansas. Based on just that one aspect alone, Howell said in the interview, given average payments of $1,500 a month over a year, that would likely amount to about $9 million in wasted money in Tennessee.
"I think that's probably conservative," he said. "I think it'd disingenuous to say we don't have the same problem in Tennessee."
The bill allows Department of Human Services officials to instantly check other databases including those from the Internal Revenue Service and other applicable federal agencies. It would also enable Tennessee to join any multi-state cooperative to crosscheck names with other states' agencies.
During the debate, Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, asked "Why do we actually need this bill and does it make playing the lottery something bad?"
Informed by Howell that lottery winners of $5,000 or more are already supposed to be self reporting, Fitzhugh said, "I fear this will punish families, ladies and gentlemen, because remember SNAP benefits help families. I haven't heard this being a problem and it certainly looks like we're creating a solution in search of a problem."
Howell said in response to questions posed by another Democrat that recipients booted off programs could later reapply and be accepted back in, provided new checks found no repeat or additional problems.
In other legislative action on Monday:
— House Democrats unveiled what they've dubbed the "People's Bill of Rights" they will be pushing as individual pieces of legislation this year, with leaders saying they form the "basic tenets of what we believe."
Described as a comprehensive package, Democrats say their legislation falls into five broad categories including the "right" to have an economy with "well-paying jobs" and "right to high-quality health care for all citizens."
The other categories are safe neighborhoods and "a fair and sensible justice system" along with a "right to participate in our Democracy without facing unreasonable obstacles."
The full roster of bills is 14 pages long and includes a number of bills Democrats have unsuccessfully pushed in the past, such as higher minimum wages, and expansion of health care, but been rejected in the GOP-dominated House where Republicans now account for 74 of the 99 members.
A number of the bills have failed in previous General Assemblies over the past six years.
Other specific legislation includes cutting or eliminating Tennessee's 5 percent sales tax on food as well as over-the-counter medicine and diapers. Other bills would bar Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's attempts to privatize some operations and services at state parks and higher education universities and colleges.
— Senators voted 32-1 and approved a bill requiring political campaign funds be deposited into a financial institution insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation or the National Credit Union Administration.
The bill is intended to address concerns raised by the outgrowth of scandals involving former Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, who was expelled by the House last year following a sexual harassment investigation into complaints made by female staffers and lobbyists.
New concerns about Durham were raised when state officials alleged that Durham invested some campaign funds as well as money from his political action committee into a company owned by Republican donor and anti-Islamist activist Andrew Miller. State campaign finance officials had to subpoena records to figure out the unconventional maneuver.
The House companion bill is sponsored by Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga.
Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, was the lone dissenter in Monday's Senate vote. The retired financial advisor said later in an interview he had several concerns, including the legislation would appear to bar a lawmaker from using campaign funds to purchase, say, state-issued bonds on the open market.