NASHVILLE - State Sen. Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville) has filed legislation in the Tennessee General Assembly to curb abuse of purchases made through electronic benefit transaction cards used by recipients of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program.
A companion bill has also been filed in the House of Representatives by state Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, a Republican from Lancaster, Tenn.
If passed, the bill would use of a welfare recipient’s EBT card in establishments that primarily sell tobacco products, psychic services, adult cabarets, as well as prevent people from using the funds to purchase tattoos.
The proposal also includes measures that would prevent using the cards at establishments open to the public where liquor, wine, beer or other alcoholic beverages are served for consumption on the premises.
“It is outrageous that these benefit cards, which are meant to help feed families with children in times of desperate need, are reported to have been misused for everything from theater tickets and a tour of Graceland, to the purchase of alcohol and nightclub entertainment,” Tracy said Wednesday in a press release. “Tennessee law should make it perfectly clear that we will not tolerate this fraudulent use of taxpayer money.”
The legislation comes after a report was released last summer by the Beacon Center of Tennessee, which uncovered numerous examples of abuse by welfare recipients.
According to the report, EBT cards were swiped at liquor stores, nightclubs, malls, retail outlets and adult entertainment establishments, as well as for a hotel stay and shipping services, among others.
The center reported one transaction at a liquor store totaling $790.
“This money is supposed to be used to feed children in struggling families, providing them with essentials until the family gets back on their feet,” Weaver said. “We need to put some teeth in our law to ensure that this abuse does not happen again.”
Under the bill, welfare recipients who use EBT benefits for alcohol, tobacco or a lottery ticket would be subject to disqualification from the program.
The legislation also prescribes civil penalties to businesses that sell those products and accept EBT benefits as payment in violation of the law. The fine for a violation by the seller would be $100 for the first violation, $500 for the second violation within five years, and $1,000 for a third or subsequent violation within five years.
In addition, the legislation calls for welfare recipients who purchasing items or services banned under the proposed act to reimburse the state for the illegal purchase.
“Many taxpayers struggle to make ends meet and to pay their taxes,” said Justin Owen, chief executive officer for the Beacon Center. “The selfish misuse of the welfare system undermines those who truly need and utilize temporary assistance lawfully and causes widespread public distrust in government services. Taxpayers should not tolerate it.”