JEFFERSON CITY — State lawmakers are moving to tighten rules on a cash assistance program for the poor, in response to an audit that raised questions about whether hundreds of Missouri welfare recipients are living out of state.
While strengthening some standards, however, lawmakers are proposing to loosen other restrictions on where welfare money can be spent and who can qualify for help. The same bill that seeks to prevent Missouri welfare payments from flowing to residents of other states also permits cash benefits to be used to buy food at liquor stores. A separate measure could allow some drug felons to enroll in a food aid program.
Late last year, Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich identified about $722,000 of what he called "questionable transactions" out of the $96 million spent in 2012 for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a program that distributes cash to low-income people through electronic benefit transfer cards. The cards operate similar to debit cards.
The audit found 366 cases in which recipients used a total of $461,000 of benefits exclusively outside the state for at least three months. Now, lawmakers are using those findings in their push to pass legislation that would kick welfare recipients out of the program if they don't purchase an item within Missouri at least once every 90 days.
Missouri pays less than 10 percent of the cost for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, with the federal government picking up the rest. The bill's supporters have raised concerns that some recipients could collect benefits in multiple states or that Missouri is paying for assistance to residents of other states.
Under a bill that passed the House this past week, recipients would be responsible for notifying the state Department of Social Services if they won't be in Missouri spending their cash assistance for three months. If no notification is provided, then benefits would be stopped.
"I don't want to put a burden on anyone, but we have to put safeguards on it," said sponsoring Rep. Wanda Brown, R-Cole Camp.
Opponents are concerned welfare recipients could have trouble reaching the department to provide notice about why they were spending time outside the state.
While it limits out-of-state spending, Brown's bill would ease some restrictions on where recipients can spend benefits money within Missouri.
A recent federal law required states to adopt policies aimed at preventing welfare spending at casinos, liquor stores and strip clubs. In response, Missouri enacted a ban and instituted steeper criminal penalties last year for using electronic benefit cards at those locations.
But this year's House measure would allow people to use their cards to buy food at those locations as long as alcohol, tobacco and lottery tickets aren't purchased.
One opponent of the overall measure said she was supportive of increasing a recipient's purchasing power in those situations.
"For many people, the only place they have to get their food and milk products is that corner liquor store or convenience store," said Rep. Genise Montecillo, D-St. Louis.
The House bill would also require the state to seek a waiver from the federal government so that photos can be printed on the electronic card from which the stamps are accessed. While food stamps are a separate program, recipients use the same card to access those benefits as well as cash assistance.
State lawmakers are also discussing whether to give some drug felons, who are currently banned from receiving aid, access to the food stamps program.
The Senate passed separate legislation last week that would allow people to receive food aid if they have completed or been determined by the state to not need a substance abuse program. The bill would not apply to people with three or more felony drug convictions.
The measure's sponsor, Sen. Kiki Curls, D-Kansas City, said expanding coverage would help people get back on their feet after drug convictions. She said federal law prevents the state from denying food stamps to people convicted of non-drug related felonies, even violent ones.
Both the House and the Senate bill need to be approved by the other chamber to reach Gov. Jay Nixon.