Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Sen. Tarr Renews Call for Passage of EBT Bill

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester) today renewed his call for the passage of legislation regulating the use of Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards.

Tarr is the lead sponsor of Senate Bill 68, An Act Preventing the Misuse of Public Funds, which was the subject of a public hearing before the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities today. The bill, which was filed in January of 2010, makes it illegal to use an EBT card to purchase alcoholic beverages, tobacco or Lottery products and imposes a combination of fines and possible jail time for store owners and employees who accept EBT cards as payment for these purchases.

In a letter hand-delivered to the committee this morning, Tarr acknowledged that many of the provisions contained in his bill were signed into law last summer as a result of a budget amendment he sponsored. However, he urged the committee to take further action, noting that “it is important that we continue to forge ahead to implement stronger oversight measures within the EBT system to ensure that the abuses that have already taken place do not continue to occur.”

“State oversight of the EBT program has been far too lax, and has allowed recipients to manipulate the system at the expense of the taxpayers who fund these benefits,” Tarr wrote. “Published reports continue to provide examples of the types of abuses that we are trying to prevent and prove that our work is far from finished. We owe it to the residents of Massachusetts to take steps to ensure that EBT cards are being used strictly for authorized purchases, and to punish those who try to take advantage of the system.”

The problems associated with the EBT program first came to light more than a year ago, following published reports of recipients using their EBT cards to withdraw money and purchase non-food items that were never meant to be included in the taxpayer-funded program. Just last month, eight people were arrested in Lynn on charges of EBT fraud after undercover police officers were able to obtain cash with their EBT cards and purchase drugs, including crack and heroin.

While the current law requires EBT recipients to reimburse the Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) for any illegal purchases, Tarr’s bill goes a step further by allowing the DTA Commissioner to disqualify individuals who break the law from obtaining future EBT benefits. Tarr’s bill also requires the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission and the state Lottery Commission, in consultation with the DTA, to inform recipients of the penalties associated with using EBT cards for illegal purchases and to post this information on their websites.