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State Republicans pushing for welfare reform, but should photo IDs on EBT cards be mandatory?

Zach Vance • Mar 12, 2018 at 11:33 PM

Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration and Senate Republicans are promoting a concerted effort in Nashville to cut down on welfare fraud, waste and abuse, including one endeavor to require photo identification on all electronic benefit transfer, or EBT, cards.

Last week, Johnson City Sen. Rusty Crowe joined the majority on his Senate Health and Welfare Committee in voting in support of the photo identification bill, sponsored by Sen. Mark Green, R-Clarksville.

However, even though he supports it, Crowe believes the legislation might encounter some impediments once it’s taken up by the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee.

If passed, the state would have to request approval from the United States Department of Agriculture Food & Nutrition Services to implement mandatory photo IDs on all EBT cards, which is how federal and state governments issue benefits, like food stamps, to needy recipients.

It would also require the federal government to replace all existing Tennessee EBT cards with a photo identification card within 12 months of approval.

Since the cards are issued to the heads of each family’s household, Crowe said that would be who’s photo would be required on the card under Green’s bill.

“I did vote for it, I think simply because, if it can cut down any fraud at all, then that’s a good thing. Some people are selling and trading these things,” the senator said. “The Department (of Human Services) was helpful but not totally positive on it. They said it does strengthen their program’s integrity, but evidently, one person gets the card and the federal government requires that a line be put on the card saying that anyone that has the PIN number can use the card.

“That’s the kicker here. So, obviously if that’s the case, this might help in some instances, but it’s not going to cure the problem because anyone with the PIN number can still use the card.”

Another issue for the bill is the fiscal note, Crowe said.

Currently, just under a million Tennesseans currently receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or food stamps.

It currently costs the state $1.50 to produce each card without a photo ID, but with the photo, that cost jumps up to $2.75 for each card.

According to the Fiscal Review Committee, the photo ID requirement would cost just over $3 million in total one-time funding, split evenly between the state and federal governments, to implement. It would also cost $59,400 annually for both the state and federal government to maintain the requirement.

“It’s going to have a hard time in the Finance (Ways, & Means) Committee,” Crowe predicted. “Especially knowing this line that goes on there, that just really cuts into the perspective that you’re trying to cut down on fraud a whole lot.”

Maine and Massachusetts currently require photo IDs on their EBT cards, and Crowe said moving forward, he’d like to study how the requirement is faring there.

Shortly before Maine implemented its photo requirement in 2014, the U.S. Department of Agricultu re, under the Obama Administration, sent a letter requesting the state delay the photo ID requirement or risk losing federal funding.

“Those concerns are grounded in recent experience in monitoring another state’s implementation of photo EBT cards: implementation which resulted in significant negative impacts for clients, retailers and the state agency,” the letter stated.

Another comprehensive welfare reform bill, carried by Sens. Mark Norris, Kerry Roberts and Bo Watson, on behalf of the Haslam Administration, also cleared Crowe’s committee last week.

It includes multiple provisions related to addressing welfare fraud, abuse and waste, but it also increases the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families’ “standard of need” allotment, which hasn’t been updated since 1996.

Adjusted for inflation using the Consumer Price Index, the $185 a family of three receives from TANF has lost 35.9 percent of its value since 1996, and has not been updated since. 

Under the bill’s provision, state officials estimate a family of three currently receiving $185 in TANF benefits would see their benefits increase to $275.

Since Tennessee does not mandate or regulate what recipients purchase, Sen. Joey Hensley criticized the need to increase the allotment, even though this state ranks second lowest in the nation in TANF benefits as a percentage of the federal poverty level.

Although he voted against the bill, Hensley said he supported the waste, fraud and abuse provisions of the legislation, such as authorizing the state to issue subpoenas when investigating the misuse of any welfare programs administered by the Department of Human Services.

In another effort to cut down on EBT waste, the bill also requires new procedures for excessive card replacements and requires the state to enter a multi-state cooperative agreement to identify individuals receiving SNAP benefits from multiple states.

Norris’ bill will be heard by the Senate Finance, Ways & Means Committee Tuesday, while Green’s bill requiring photo IDs on EBT cards has yet to be scheduled for a hearing by the finance committee.

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