NASHVILLE - Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam says he will reinstate federal food stamp work requirements for an estimated 58,000 adults without dependents in most Tennessee counties, including Hamilton, next year.
He also said he plans to recommend additional measures to combat fraud.
At the same time, the Republican governor will ask state lawmakers to boost monthly payments for the estimated 25,000 families on the state's welfare program for the first time in two decades to make up for inflation.
Yet another Haslam proposal: Provide transitional funding for welfare families whose bread winners' jobs or raises put them beyond the reach of assistance such as child care before they're able to stand on their own.
Haslam made the announcement Monday, saying the reinstatement of work or education requirements in 70 of Tennessee's 95 counties for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program would take effect May 1.
About 1.1 million Tennesseans receive SNAP (formerly known as food stamp) benefits. The vast majority are families, seniors, the disabled and low-paid workers who rely on the money as a support. Those people would not be affected.
Tennessee's SNAP work requirements were suspended in 2008 as the Great Recession struck, putting thousands of Tennesseans out of work or into part-time work, Haslam and Human Services Commissioner Danielle Barnes said.
The move was warranted then, Haslam said, but he noted Tennessee's unemployment has since fully recovered and over the last three months fallen to the lowest levels in recorded state history.
"This is the way the law is designed to work," Haslam told reporters. "The law was passed in 1996 and said if you're an able-bodied adult without dependents, you're supposed to be working, looking for work or getting an education.
"We've had record low unemployment three months in a row in Tennessee," he added. "It's hard to say we're under an extraordinary circumstance that would deserve a waiver."
The work requirement was quietly re-imposed earlier this year for nine mostly Middle Tennessee counties, including Davidson County (Nashville) and six surrounding counties where the economy is red hot. Knox and Lincoln counties fill out the remainder of that list.
Haslam is proposing to exclude for now able-bodied adults with no dependents in 16 counties who could continue to receive food aid because their counties' unemployment rates remain high.
Among them are three greater Chattanooga area counties: Grundy, Bledsoe and Van Buren.
But recipients in Hamilton and most nearby counties would be impacted. In Hamilton County alone, 3,800 persons now not complying with the still-suspended work requirements would be affected, according to human services officials.
Political reaction was divided largely along political lines, with Republicans such as Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville, who is running to succeed the term-limited Haslam in 2018, praising the governor's move.
"Republicans in the General Assembly have been eager to expand the work requirement for SNAP benefits, and I applaud Governor Haslam and Commissioner Barnes for taking what I see as the logical next step in statewide welfare reform," Harwell said in a statement.
She said as speaker, "I look forward to working with the administration and my colleagues on this issue during [the] session."
State House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, a Democratic candidate for governor, urged caution, saying, "while our great state is doing well as a whole economically, there [are] a large number of Tennesseans who have not recovered with the same vigor and health as others.
"I am certainly against fraud and abuse of our social safety net, as well as every other aspect of our government, but I want to make sure that we are not using an axe where a scalpel is needed in weeding out abusers of the system," he added.
Notices will go to the 58,000 able-bodied adults without children on Feb. 1. The work and education requirements would be reimposed 90 days later on May 1.
Anti-food stamp fraud efforts will be stepped up. Barnes said part of the problem is believed to stem from recipients who repeatedly report losing their EBT cards used to pay for basic necessities.
The state begins asking questions after a recipient applies for a fourth EBT card out of concerns the cards may be sold. That has resulted in dramatic drops in efforts to obtain a fifth card, authorities said.
Now, Commissioner Barnes said, the idea is to begin asking recipients when they apply for a third card.
Meanwhile, Barnes revealed that she recently stepped up anti-food stamp fraud efforts by creating a new inspector general specifically tasked to ferret out the activity.
Much like TennCare's inspector general's office, officials will investigate alleged fraud and present findings of criminal abuse to local prosecutors, Barnes said.
Asked whether such efforts signal that Haslam may aspire to higher elective office once he leaves the governor's mansion in January 2019, Haslam told reporters, "100 percent no."
He acknowledged that, "I guess you could argue we could have done it earlier, but when we hit record low unemployment three months in a row, it becomes a time to look around and say are we doing everything the right way. And we looked at this and thought, again, it's hard to justify a waiver when we're where we are now."
The administration's initial news release, meanwhile, made no mention of Haslam's plan to ask fellow Republicans in the General Assembly, who control both chambers, to boost payments to the 25,000 families on TANF, the welfare program.
They haven't seen their monthly checks increase since Tennessee's Families First program went into effect in 1996.
Payments technically are tied to the state's Standard of Need, providing 20 percent of the average costs of raising a family based on family size. It's calcaluted annually for the state by the University of Tennessee.
But because lawmakers haven't raised the standard since 1996, the amount given is far less than 21 years ago given inflation.
Therefore, Haslam said, he is proposing providing a boost.
For example, Tennessee now provides $185 for a family of three, whereas the average for surrounding states is $262.
Haslam said he will have a bill that would provide about 20 percent of the standard to a family of three. The result would be $277, or $92 more than they now receive.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.