There are two initiatives I want to highlight this week. Both would reform the public assistance benefits system and reinstate integrity for everyone's sake. The first one concerns purchases made with electronic benefits cards (EBT cards). It is envisioned that purchases made with EBT cards' cash assistance program would be for products such as diapers and other household necessities that are not covered by the food stamp program. Shockingly, however, under current law it is also legal to purchase cigarettes, alcohol, lottery tickets, or adult material with EBT cards. I sponsor commonsense legislation that would no longer make this permissible. Secondly, I also sponsor legislation that would require background checks on those who apply for public benefits to ensure that applicants who are seeking to receive public assistance are not wanted felons.
The legislation that I sponsor, the Public Assistance Integrity Act, would prohibit anyone who receives public benefits from using EBT cards to purchase alcohol or tobacco and it would establish penalties for those who do. Specifically, it would: 1) require all public assistance applicants to be notified that it is illegal to make such purchases; 2) penalize retailers from offering these items in exchange for public assistance benefits; and, 3) prohibit the withdrawal of cash with an EBT card at casinos, liquor stores or adult establishments.
Investigations done by the media have revealed there is blatant abuse within the system. The New York Post reported earlier this year that cash withdrawals were made at questionable establishments such as bars and strip clubs. Our state authorities are aware this is happening as well, but to date, have chosen not to act to prevent such egregious behavior from taking place.
Along with this legislation, I have urged the Office of Temporary Disability Assistance to place regulatory restrictions on EBT cards. The federal government already prohibits the purchase of liquor, tobacco and lottery tickets with its food stamp program but the cash-assistance program currently has no such limitations.
The fact that the benefits are being allowed to be used improperly is troubling to me as it should be to all taxpayers and to recipients of public assistance who are using the system appropriately. Public assistance programs were created to help individuals and their families overcome difficult financial situations. Certainly, it was not envisioned that individuals would be able to use public assistance to purchase alcohol, tobacco or lottery tickets. Greater accountability measures need to be in place. Last year, the Public Assistance Integrity Act passed the Senate. However, for reasons that are unclear, the Majority Assembly did not bring the legislation to the floor for a vote. This year, I intend to renew my efforts to get the legislation passed in the Assembly and signed into law.
I have also reintroduced legislation that would require a criminal background check on those applying for public benefits. My legislation would require the Division of Criminal Justice Services to look for outstanding warrants or probation violations before benefits are approved. Currently, the state relies on applicants to be truthful about prior violations. Unfortunately, applicants are not always truthful as we saw last year in Fulton. In that case, authorities discovered a man was receiving public assistance in New York while he was wanted for attempted murder in South Carolina. A simple inexpensive background check would prevent this type of situation from occurring and would help uphold the integrity of our public assistance programs.
The intent of these pieces of legislation is not to enact punitive measures on those who receive public assistance. Rather, they are aimed at sustaining the public's faith in these well-intentioned programs, and to protect the people who use them properly. I am hopeful that this year we will be able to enact into law these commonsense reforms.
If you have any questions or comments on this or any other state issue, or if you would like to be added to my mailing list or receive my newsletter, please contact my office. My office can be reached by mail at 200 North Second Street, Fulton, New York 13069, by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (315) 598-5185. You also may find me, Assemblyman Barclay, on Facebook.