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Saturday, July 7, 2012

O’Brien calls for tighter restrictions on use of EBT cards

CONCORD – House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, said Friday that he is actively exploring legislation to prevent those on welfare from spending cash assistance on cigarettes, alcohol or lottery tickets.

During a media availability Friday, O’Brien said it’s worth examining whether the state could prevent welfare recipients from using electronic benefit cards at any ATM machine to get cash.

“We are finding that funds are being put on these cards with no controls being used,” O’Brien said.

The speaker praised Jackie Whiton, the Antrim clerk who got fired last month for refusing to sell cigarettes to a welfare client. Whiton was sitting next to O’Brien for Friday’s press conference, held in the speaker’s office.

“Jackie Whiton had the courage to stand up as an employee of a store to say ‘Enough,’ ” O’Brien said. “We are not going to let her courage go unanswered.”

Whiton said that since she’s been fired, she’s gotten emails, telephone calls and letters of support from all over the country.

“This issue is something I could not sit by and let happen at the taxpayers’ expense,” Whiton said.

Rep. Peter Leishman, D-Peterborough, represents Whiton’s district and told O’Brien that House Democrats support O’Brien’s main goal.

“This is not a partisan issue,” Leishman said at the press conference in O’Brien’s office.

O’Brien said Whiton’s case has sparked plenty of similar examples that should alarm taxpayers.

“There’s a buzz out there,” O’Brien said.

The federal government picks up roughly half of the cost of welfare benefits under the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program.

New Hampshire’s Temporary Assistance Director Terry Smith said TANF is sent to the states as a block grant and that they may impose restrictions on the use of EBT cards.

O’Brien said he would support seeking a waiver of federal laws or regulations if that’s needed to impose restrictions.

Lawmakers may consider restricting cash assistance purchases of foods that aren’t healthy or too expensive for low-income families to buy, O’Brien added.

The state budget that lawmakers in Massachusetts approved last month prevents future use of EBT cards at a variety of retailers, including liquor stores, strip clubs, tattoo parlors and firearms dealers.

Starting in February 2014, all states will have to prevent EBT cards from being used at ATMs at liquor stores, casinos and adult entertainment stores.

States that fail to comply will lose 5 percent of federal grants they receive for welfare recipients under the new law.

This is part of the Middle Class Tax Relief Act that Congress approved and President Obama signed last February.

The Center for Law and Social Policy protested the federal law and efforts that other states have made to restrict EBT card use, arguing that there was no evidence of abuse by those using the program.

“This new provision is part of a growing trend of policies that stigmatize struggling families,” CLASP said in a statement on the federal law. “They hinge on the stereotype of welfare recipients as vice-ridden and wasteful spenders of taxpayer money.”

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashua telegraph.com. Also, follow Landrigan on Twitter (@Klandrigan).