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House committee hears testimony on use of EBT cards for tobacco, alcohol

The store clerk fired in 2012 for refusing to let a customer buy cigarettes with a federal benefits card urged a House committee yesterday to approve a bill prohibiting alcohol and tobacco purchases on the cards.

But the bill’s opponents said the law would be nearly impossible to enforce, and that the perception that welfare recipients overwhelmingly spend money on tobacco and alcohol is not the reality. They also pointed to a law that took effect Jan. 1, which prevents people from using the cards at specific locations, such as liquor stores.

Both sides gave their testimony to the House Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee, which will now send the bill to a subcommittee. The bill would prohibit the purchase of alcohol and tobacco products with electronic benefit transfer, or EBT, cards where federal benefits are deposited for people on public assistance. The bill has no mechanism for enforcement, which several speakers, even some who support restrictions, addressed at the hearing.

Jackie Whiton, the store clerk from Antrim, has gained national attention since her firing and told the committee she has faced lawsuits and threats. But she presses on with her fight because she said she believes taxpayers shouldn’t be subsidizing these purchases.

“They probably had every right to fire me, but I will stand by my convictions on this one,” she said.

She brought with her a packet of letters from supporters and a petition with more than 1,300 signatures, which she gave to one of the bill’s co-sponsors, Republican Rep. Frank Sapareto of Derry, after her testimony.

In her 16 years as a clerk she said she has seen rampant fraud, including cardholders selling their cards to other people or letting others use them for cash in return. She’s not opposed to needy people receiving benefits for things like food, but she said that vices such as cigarettes shouldn’t be allowed.

“I can be the most generous person in the world, but don’t try to screw me over by using an EBT card for cigarettes,” she said.

Two of the bill’s co-sponsors, Sapareto and Rep. Peter Leishman, a Peterborough Democrat, highlighted similar concerns during their testimony. Rep. Bill O’Brien, a Mont Vernon Republican and former House speaker, is a third sponsor of the bill.

“Unfortunately, we had someone who lost their job over trying to do the right thing,” Sapareto said.

But Sarah Mattson, policy director for New Hampshire Legal Assistance, said it would be a mistake to mandate further restrictions when the effects of the new law that began Jan. 1 haven’t been seen. Last year, a federal amendment required states to develop policies that would prohibit people from using EBT cards at liquor stores, gambling establishments and adult entertainment outlets. In New Hampshire, this applies to recipients of public assistance through three programs: Financial Assistance to Needy Families, Aid to the Permanently and Totally Disabled, and Old Age Assistance.

“Given the recency of these changes, we would first encourage the community to delay any further action on EBT until you see how these restrictions are working,” Mattson said.

There is also little evidence, beyond anecdotal, that people on these programs routinely use the money for tobacco and alcohol, she said. The benefits are barely enough to pay rent and buy food, even without alcohol and cigarette purchases, she said.

“We believe evidence points to a very small real problem and a very large perception problem,” she said. “The reason that these families don’t have enough money to get by is because the amount of the benefit falls far short of meeting even the most basic needs.”

Finally, Mattson and other opponents highlighted what they see as enforcement problems. If people use their EBT cards to take out cash, the cashiers have no way of knowing where the cash came from. Requiring cashiers to ask where the cash came from could place unfair stereotypes on people who may look like they belong on welfare, Mattson said. Most people with EBT cards also have another source of income that the cash could come from, she said.

Cashiers could also be confused over what items can be purchased on various cards, which could result in people being stopped from making legal purchases, she said.

John Williams, director of legislative affairs for the Department of Health and Human Services, said the department takes no position on the law but would like to work with the subcommittee on that question. Members of the department have already looked into enforcement of similar laws in other states and have ideas about what it could look like in New Hampshire, he said.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3390 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)

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Legacy Comments2

Sounds like Ms. Mattson has an excuse for everything. First make it so no cash can be obtained from the card, at least make the person use THIS money for the certain things. Every product on the store shelf has a bar code on it, no two bar codes are the same. The state should allow only certain bar codes to be accepted through the card. Every store in the state should chip in $10/$20 for this to be done, they want the business then it is a cost of getting that business. No charges from out of state allowed, get caught they shut off the card. This is not a major labor ordeal, it is all existing data in computer programs. If someone does not like the restrictions then don't apply for the benefit, that is also their right.

Correct Jim, they should not be able to get cigarettes, alcohol, cash or have their nails done. If they attempt to do any of this then they should have their card turned off and they should be placed on hold upon review by the government. Any store found selling these items to card holders should be fined. I was in Market Basket a couple of months ago and a woman paid with an EBT card, then she took out a wad of cash (must have been $1000) and paid for things that the card would not cover. Makes you wonder.

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