With what he is describing as broad support for the effort, House Speaker Bob DeLeo (D-Winthrop) has pushed for further reforms on the infamous Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) welfare system.
While a legislative committee recently identified some reforms, DeLeo said he wanted to push for more reforms to be included in the House Budget recommendation that came out last week.
DeLeo also indicated there could be separate, more comprehensive legislation on the issue forthcoming after the budget process is over.
The EBT program issues recipients a type of credit card, and benefits from numerous government welfare programs – including food stamps and direct cash benefits – are applied to that card electronically. It can then be used as any other ATM card, though there are some restrictions on what can be purchased.
“I’m not saying fraud is rampant in the program,” DeLeo said this week. “It’s of a small nature, but what we want to do is tighten up the restrictions during the budget process. When we have to cut other programs that are important to us, any time we can find waste and fraud and run a program better, we have to take advantage of that. I think this is one program that cries out for some reforms.”
Like many others, DeLeo said he has been outraged by some of the abuse chronicled in the Boston media – especially last week when it was reported an alleged drug dealer in Boston apparently used his EBT card to get cash so he could be bailed out of jail.
That story piggybacked on a major fraud case in Lynn where numerous convenience store owners had allegedly set up a system by which people were using EBT cards to buy crack cocaine.
It was also reported in the Boston media that some 20,000 cards are reported lost every month – signaling to many that the benefits on the cards are being sold for cash in great numbers.
Of course, for the general public, there are the anecdotal stories and outrages that are reported frequently about people buying scratch tickets, alcohol and other non-essential items.
DeLeo said he supports the principle of the program fully, but cannot ignore the abuses that have been reported.
“I’ve always been a supporter of families and individuals that need services and help, that the government should be there to help them,” he said. “Whether it’s a financial situation or senior citizens or the disabled, I’ve supported that. On the other hand, when you hear and read about the abuses going on, in particular with this program, it upsets me greatly. It’s hardworking people who are paying for it and taxpayers who are on the hook…When you see fraud committed with taxpayer dollars, it’s very upsetting.”
With that in mind, DeLeo and several other state representatives set out to put additional restrictions on the program – attacking the more obvious abuses like using such cards at jewelry stores, for bail money, for out-of-state travel, for tattoos and at nail salons/cosmetics.
Already, DeLeo said that using the cards at casinos and to buy liquor or lottery tickets is prohibited. However, critics are quick to point out that those who receive cash benefits can use their cash payments to buy such items as liquor, lottery tickets and casino games.
DeLeo said the expanded budget effort to rein in EBT abuses is a sign to let people know state leaders are listening.
“We really wanted to get something in the budget to let citizens know we hear their concerns,” he added.
Surprisingly, the effort has received support from many quarters of the state – including from one legislator who represents part of Roxbury and Dorchester. That state rep told the Dorchester Reporter newspaper that his mind was made up when he went to a Stop & Shop in his district and a man outside offered to sell an EBT card to the rep for 50 cents on the dollar.
State Rep. Kathi-Anne Reinstein (D-Revere) said that she also supports the effort, though cautioned that people should not believe that everyone on the EBT program is on the take.
“I have my concerns too, but we have to be careful,” she said. “No matter how much we crack down, there will always be people who squander what others need…That family that is below the 150 percent poverty line, they need those EBT cards not only for food, but also for soap and shampoo, but I’m also concerned about people violating the law. We need to do something.
“There’s no words for the frustration when people abuse the system, especially when we get calls every day in our office from people who legitimately need it,” she continued. “That makes it all the more frustrating.”
DeLeo said he’s optimistic that the changes will be adopted in the budget, noting that there haven’t been any major amendments filed against the changes.
“Even some of the reps who may have been more inclined to support many of these programs have really understood this is something which has gotten out of hand a bit and something we need to take stock of and address right away,” said DeLeo.
The House Budget recommendation is in the process of moving to a Conference Committee. Any recommendations in that budget will have to pass through that Committee before being adopted in a final budget.