Law proposed to curb public assistance abuse

ALBANY – The state Senate, for the second year in a row, has passed legislation that would prohibit welfare recipients from using cash assistance to buy tobacco, alcoholic beverages, lottery tickets or to gamble.

The Public Assistance Integrity Act is sponsored by Sen. Tom Libous, R-Binghamton, and co-sponsored by Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, among others. It has yet to be taken up by the Assembly, where it died last year.

The legislation is designed to cut down on what supporters say is the flagrant abuse of Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards, which work like debit cards for welfare recipients. EBT cards contain both food stamps and cash assistance. Food stamps have strict regulations on what can be purchased while cash assistance does not.

Cash assistance is meant to be used for items that can’t be purchased using food stamps like soap, toothpaste, school supplies and toiletries. However, recipients can also legally use this cash assistance to buy cigarettes and beer, or even to fund an afternoon at the racetrack or an evening at a local strip club.

If signed into law, the Public Assistance Integrity Act would limit where EBT cards can be used and what they can be used for.

“When purchases such as lottery tickets and cigarettes are possible with public assistance dollars, the government clearly has failed in its responsibility to the taxpayers footing the bill,” Little said in a press release. “Stronger laws are needed so that this public benefit isn’t misused.”

The federal government has mandated that each state establish a system of fraud prevention by February 2014. If the state doesn’t act, legislators say the federal government could penalize New York by cutting federal funding for cash assistance by 5 percent, or $120 million.