COLUMN: Public Assistance Integrity Act would institute necessary reforms

— There are two initiatives I want to highlight this week. Both would reform the public assistance benefits system and reinstate integrity for everyone's sake. The first one concerns purchases made with electronic benefits cards (EBT cards). It is envisioned that purchases made with EBT cards' cash assistance program would be for products such as diapers and other household necessities that are not covered by the food stamp program. Shockingly, however, under current law it is also legal to purchase cigarettes, alcohol, lottery tickets or adult material with EBT cards. I sponsor commonsense legislation that would no longer make this permissible. Secondly, I also sponsor legislation that would require background checks on those who apply for public benefits to ensure that applicants who are seeking to receive public assistance are not wanted felons.

The legislation that I sponsor, the Public Assistance Integrity Act, would prohibit anyone who receives public benefits from using EBT cards to purchase alcohol or tobacco and it would establish penalties for those who do. Specifically, it would: 1) require all public assistance applicants to be notified that it is illegal to make such purchases; 2) penalize retailers from offering these items in exchange for public assistance benefits; and, 3) prohibit the withdrawal of cash with an EBT card at casinos, liquor stores or adult establishments.

Investigations done by the media have revealed there is blatant abuse within the system. The New York Post reported earlier this year that cash withdrawals were made at questionable establishments such as bars and strip clubs. Our state authorities are aware this is happening as well but, to date, have chosen not to act to prevent such egregious behavior from taking place.

Along with this legislation, I have urged the Office of Temporary Disability Assistance to place regulatory restrictions on EBT cards. The federal government already prohibits the purchase of liquor, tobacco and lottery tickets with its food stamp program, but the cash-assistance program currently has no such limitations.

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