NASHVILLE — Legislative supporters hope this week to get back on track a Haslam administration bill that toughens fraud enforcement in the state's welfare program while also boosting families' cash payments for the first time in nearly a quarter century.
The bill was almost derailed on the House floor last week when proponents narrowly failed to quash an amendment to keep the new enforcement provisions while eliminating the first increases to the program since its 1996 inception.
That prompted Rep. Dan Howell, R-Georgetown, the sponsor, to delay further consideration. The bill is scheduled to come back Monday to the House floor.
"I think we have the votes to pass it," Howell said Friday. "Unfortunately, the people who stood to oppose it and tried to amend it focused on one aspect of the bill. There are many more elements than just the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families element."
Temporary Assistance to Needy Families is the federally funded but state-administered workforce development and employment program for low-income families. Tennessee's program is called Families First and has about 25,000 families in it.
Under the bill proposed by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, the average payment for a family of three would rise from $185 to about $277 a month.
Other provisions are aimed at deterring or ferreting out waste, fraud or abuse. They include:
> Requiring Tennessee to seek federal approval to join a multi-state clearing house to find any Families First members who are "double dipping" on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as food stamps, by getting benefits in more than one state.
> Granting the state new, limited subpoena powers to seek documents when officials suspect fraud.
> Requiring the state's Department of Human Services to warn enrollees that their EBT card for SNAP benefits will be monitored after the third time someone says they have lost their card.
Another bill provision would extend payments for six months to families in which adults get higher wages that would disqualify them from the program. That's intended to keep from discouraging adults from seeking more work hours, allowing them to get on their feet, proponents say.
Families First already has requirements that adults either work, get into an educational program or find meaningful volunteer work. The state provides transportation, child care assistance, education, job training, employment activities and other support services.
Cash assistance is also provided through means of Electronic Benefits Transfer cards to families with dependent children when a parent is incapacitated, unemployed, deceased or absent from the home, and the family is unable to pay basic living expenses.
During last week's floor debate, Rep. Tilman Goins, R-Morristown, praised the new powers to crack down on abuse but criticized the proposed cash increase. He pushed an amendment to strip that from the bill.
"We're talking about cash money that can be used to buy anything from cigarettes to liquor to prostitutes," Goins charged. "Maybe they want to rent a hotel room for less than six hours."
He told lawmakers the increase amounted to a "poison pill" and urged them to remove it through his amendment.
Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, retorted Goins' statement was "maybe one of the cruelest things I've heard on this floor."
Howell said Tennessee now ranks 48th lowest among states on TANF cash benefits. The legislation would move the state to the forty-fourth lowest, he added.
The Bradley County lawmaker also pointed out the increase still doesn't catch up payments with 22 years of inflation. But he said he's noticed that lawmakers' per diem expenses for housing and food during the legislative session is usually annually adjusted to compensate for inflation.
"You've got to understand there is a work requirement on TANF," Howell told the House. "You don't work, you don't get the TANF. And the average working family on TANF earns $933 a month. So we add to that the average of $167, making about $1,100 average. It's been a long long time since I've had to live on $1,000 a month. I'm not sure many of us could do that."
According to a fiscal note, the bill has no impact on state finances because TANF is federally funded. The state has a substantial TANF reserve fund. Howell's amendment also removed an automatic inflation adjustment. It keeps state lawmakers in the driver's seat when it comes to future increases.
Speaking in support of the administration's bill, Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, said efforts to strip out the increase amounts to "punishing people because we haven't taken steps for 22 years to keep up with inflation. These are the working poor, remember that, to be on you have to be working. These are people who are trying."
Howell's effort to table Goins' proposed amendment failed on a 41-42 vote. He then delayed further consideration. The Republican-controlled Senate passed it last month on a 30-1 vote.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.