Missouri bill would block welfare money at liquor stores, strip clubs, sports events

Some Missouri lawmakers want to block welfare recipients from using their benefits at liquor stores, casinos, strip clubs and athletic events.

A Senate committee held a hearing Monday on a bill that would tighten restrictions on the use of electronic benefit cards used to access food stamp and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits.

The measure has bipartisan sponsorship from two lawmakers who rarely align on proposals. Sen. Will Kraus, R-Lee’s Summit, and Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, say their bill is a compromise that will curb fraud in Missouri’s welfare programs.

Reports surfaced last year that Missourians were using electronic benefit transfer cards at ATMs near bars, casinos and strip clubs. A KMOV investigation highlighted thousands of dollars that had been withdrawn in exotic locations.

“These cards have been used in Las Vegas and on islands off the mainland,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “These funds are for those people who are in need — the most vulnerable. If it’s one or two people (committing fraud), that’s too many.”

In addition to placing specific restrictions on where Electronic Benefit Transfer cards can be used, the Senate bill would bar businesses from accepting them for purchases of alcohol, tobacco or lottery tickets.

Initial violations would result in misdemeanor charges, but repeat offenders would face felony charges.

Similar legislation that aims to stop the abuse of welfare benefits has been proposed in the House, but no hearing has been conducted.

No one spoke against the proposal in the Senate Judiciary and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence Committee hearing Monday night.

In November, Republican state auditor Tom Schweich announced that his office had started an audit focused on reviewing the use of EBT cards and identifying restrictions that can be placed on card usage.

The auditor’s spokesman, Spence Jackson, said Monday that the review is still in progress.

Kraus has previously sought stricter restrictions on welfare, including a proposal to require photo identification to receive food stamp benefits. He said the new proposal is the best option for getting new restrictions through the Legislature.

“I’m looking at what we can get accomplished,” he said.

Missouri law already prohibits the use of electronic card benefits at casinos, but Kraus and Chappelle-Nadal said they want the state to work to electronically block the use of cards at certain establishments. But the measure stops short of blocking all use for such expenses because recipients could still withdraw cash from other ATMs to use elsewhere.

“We can’t completely stop them from using the money inappropriately, but I think this is the right thing to do,” Kraus said. “If they have to leave the casino to get more money, chances are they may not go back.”