2014 legislative update: Alabama Legislature OKs new requirements for TANF recipients, doesn't end lifetime SNAP, TANF bans for people with felony drug conviction

People convicted of a drug-related felony will remain ineligible for food assistance or cash welfare benefits in Alabama after the state House adjourned Thursday night without passing a bill to end the state’s lifetime eligibility bans for them. Lawmakers approved several other bills related to public benefits this week, including a requirement for some applicants to pass a drug test before receiving benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

SB 303, sponsored by Sen. Linda Coleman, D-Birmingham, cleared the Senate 18-8 in February but lost a procedural vote in the House on Wednesday. Most House members voted to consider the bill, but the majority fell short of the three-fifths support needed under House rules to send the bill to a floor vote. The House did not consider the proposal again on Thursday, the final day of the 2014 regular session.

Coleman’s bill would have allowed otherwise eligible people to receive food assistance or cash welfare benefits even if they have a prior felony drug conviction, as long as they have completed their sentence or are complying with their probation terms, including court-ordered drug treatment.

Alabama is one of 10 states where people convicted of a drug felony face a lifetime eligibility ban under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Rep. Rod Scott, D-Fairfield, said Wednesday. Alabama also is one of 12 states to apply a similar ban to TANF benefits, Scott said. The bans apply even to people with a decades-old offense.

Lawmakers send other legislation affecting SNAP, TANF recipients to governor

TANF applicants who had a drug conviction in the last five years would have to pass a drug test to receive benefits under a bill that the House passed 73-27 Thursday. SB 63, sponsored by Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, would require the Department of Human Resources (DHR) to pay for initial drug tests, as well as any later required tests that the applicant passes. The bill would allow someone else to receive benefits on behalf of other family members if an applicant fails two or more drug tests. SB 63’s provisions would expire in 2017 unless reauthorized.

Rep. Kerry Rich, R-Albertville, said the bill is more narrowly tailored than a Florida drug testing law that a federal judge struck down late last year and said the measure could save Alabama money. “I think it’s a bad idea for the taxpayers to fund someone’s drug habit,” Rich said. “We have got to get people in a position where they understand they have to be responsible for their own lives.”

Rep. Napoleon Bracy, D-Prichard, questioned whether SB 63 would save Alabama any money at all. Bracy noted that the Legislative Fiscal Office (LFO) did not attach a dollar amount to how much the state might save under the bill. The LFO’s fiscal note says the bill would increase DHR’s obligations “by an undetermined amount” that “could be offset in total or in part” by not paying TANF benefits to people who fail a drug test.

Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, called it “embarrassing” to demand that some TANF applicants provide a urine sample to the state. “The majority of people who are on public assistance are hard-working folks who are doing the right thing,” England said. “Most of the people who go down there [to apply] have to swallow a great deal of pride in the first place.”

People would have to apply for at least three jobs before applying for TANF under legislation the House passed 70-33 Wednesday night. The Senate voted 28-1 Thursday to agree to the House version of SB 115 and send it to Gov. Robert Bentley. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, would require recipients to comply with DHR’s requirements for job search preparation, education and other employment activities.

Another proposal that won House approval Wednesday night would forbid TANF recipients to use EBT cards in bars, liquor stores, casinos, tattoo parlors and adult entertainment establishments. SB 116, sponsored by Orr, also would prohibit the use of TANF benefits to buy alcohol or tobacco. The House passed the bill 80-22.

By Chris Sanders, communications director. Policy analyst Carol Gundlach contributed to this report. Posted April 3, 2014.

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