Tennessee House OKs bill increasing welfare cash benefits for first time since 1996

Tennessee state Rep. Dan Howell, R-Georgetown, is shown in this 2014 staff file photo.

NASHVILLE - State representatives on Monday gave final approval to legislation increasing Tennessee's welfare cash payments for the first time in 22 years, while also toughening the program's anti-fraud provisions.

The vote in favor of the bill, which ran into trouble last week on the floor, was 88-7. The measure now goes to Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, whose administration recommended it.

"This is a good bill," said Rep. Dan Howell, R-Georgetown, the bill's sponsor. "It's time we gave a cost-of-living allowance to these 40,000 children in Tennessee."

The GOP-controlled chamber earlier tabled a proposed amendment from Rep. Tilman Goins, R-Morristown, which last Thursday had snarled proceedings when it survived Howell's efforts to table it.

The Goins' amendment would have stripped away the increase, which boosts the percentage of Tennessee's Standard of Need for households in the Families First program, the state's federally funded Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, from 20 percent to 22 percent.

It was tabled on a 68-28 vote.

photo Tennessee state Rep. Patsy Hazlewood meets with the Times Free Press editorial board at the newspaper's offices on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The average payment for a family of three would rise from $185 to about $277 a month.

Howell stressed that families on the program have a 60-month lifetime cap on benefits. The program has requirements that adults either work, be in an education program or engage in meaningful volunteer work.

"These are the working poor. I just want everyone to keep that in mind," said Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, a supporter, later adding the increase in cash benefits could mean all the difference to a family with a broken-down vehicle.

The bill also boosts fraud enforcement, granting the state Department of Human Services new powers that include issuing subpoenas as well as closely monitoring families who've lost multiple EBT cards used to purchase food.

Several Democrats objected to the provisions.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.