JEFFERSON CITY — Two Missouri senators are reaching across the aisle in order to stop low-income people from spending welfare benefits on alcohol and entertainment.
Sens. Will Kraus and Maria Chappelle-Nadal outlined their measure at a news conference Monday. It would prevent welfare recipients from spending their electronic benefits at liquor stores, casinos and adult entertainment establishments.
Missouri has until 2014 to adopt such prohibitions in order to comply with a federal law passed in 2012. The state would risk losing 5 percent of its funding for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Benefits program, which oversees and distributes welfare benefits. But the Senate legislation would go past the federal requirements, also barring welfare recipients from spending welfare benefits on lottery tickets or at amusement parks, zoos and museums.
"These funds are supposed to be used for families that are in need and specifically for children who are in need. When I heard that there are people using these cards at casinos and at strip clubs and out of town on possible vacations, I was dismayed," Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, said.
Under the bill, offenders who repeatedly misuse their welfare money could be convicted of a felony and end up in prison. The measure would also target business owners who knowingly accept electronic benefits transactions on banned items, fining them $500 on the first offense and more than $1,000 on subsequent charges.
The bill's sponsors didn't come to a consensus overnight.
Last year, Kraus, a Republican from Lee's Summit, pushed for legislation that would have required photo identification on the physical electronic benefits card. Chappelle-Nadal opposed that legislation and said it could have reduced welfare money for children by placing restrictions on who could make purchases with the electronic card.
"I am looking at what we can get accomplished. Obviously we hit some roadblocks last time. I would rather make a step forward on preventing fraud and put the things that are maybe controversial in the rear seat at this point," Kraus said.
Both sponsors said the bill would not totally eliminate welfare fraud. Currently, electronic benefits can be transferred into cash, allowing recipients to make cash withdrawals at an ATM and then spend their money on anything.
The Senate's judiciary committee conducted a hearing on the proposal Monday. No one testified in opposition to the bill at the hearing.
Improper welfare spending at casinos is the subject of an ongoing state audit, announced by Auditor Tom Schweich last November.