Legislation to curb Missouri welfare fraud sent to governor

Missouri welfare recipients could not spend their cash benefits at casinos, liquor stores or adult-entertainment establishments under legislation sent to Gov. Jay Nixon on Thursday.

The legislation would restrict the use of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families cash benefits at those locations and on items marketed exclusively for adults. Welfare cash benefits are distributed to recipients through electronic benefit transfer cards which function like credit cards. The measure would it make illegal to use those cards in transactions at any of the prohibited locations.

Missouri needs to adopt the welfare spending restrictions this year in order to comply with federal guidelines or risk losing 5 percent of the program's funding.

“By not addressing this issue, we allow these dollars to be used in inappropriate places,” said Rep. Casey Guernsey, R-Bethany.

The House voted 110-36 to send the measure to Nixon on Thursday. Senators approved the same bill earlier this year.

Many House Democrats opposed the bill and argued it would place burdensome restrictions on where people can shop and pointed out that many liquor stores also sell food. The bill would prohibit electronic benefits transfer spending at any store which “exclusively or primarily” sells liquor. The same electronic benefits transfer cards used for cash assistance are also used by welfare recipients to access federal food stamp benefits.

“If you're poor you don't count. If you're poor we can decide what you do, where you shop and where you spend it,” said Rep. Gail McCann Beatty, D-Kansas City, who opposed the bill.

Welfare recipients guilty of repeatedly improperly spending their benefits would be subject to steeper criminal penalties under the measure. Under current law, spending benefits on prohibited items less than $500 is a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum one-year prison sentence.

But the law would increase that penalty for a person committing their second violation to a felony charge, carrying a maximum four-year prison term.

Business owners who knowingly sell prohibited items to welfare recipients would also face fines. The first offense would carry a maximum fine of $500 but subsequent offenses would garner fines up to $1,000.

Welfare fraud is SB251. Legislature: http://www.moga.mo.gov .