By Jon Campbell, Albany Bureau
ALBANY - The state Senate approved a bill Tuesday that would block New York benefit cards from being used at strip clubs and casinos or for items like alcohol and cigarettes, but the state Assembly isn't expected to take up the measure before the legislative session ends this week.
The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Thomas Libous, R-Binghamton, would prohibit New Yorkers from using any type of welfare assistance on tobacco products, lottery tickets or alcoholic beverages. Electronic Benefit Transfer, or EBT, cards would become illegal to use in any gambling facilities, liquor stores or places where "performers disrobe or perform in an unclothed state."
"We fully understand that there are people in this state who need help," Libous said in a news conference. "What this bill does is help people, because we're going to go after those individuals who defraud the system."
The measure was spurred by a 2012 federal law, which required states to install protections to keep public assistance funds from being used on booze or cigarettes. If such protections aren't in place by February, the state faces a 5 percent cut in its federal assistance funding, which comes out to about $120 million, according to Senate Republicans.
The bill is introduced in the Assembly, but isn't expected to come to a vote before the end of the week, when lawmakers are scheduled to return to their home districts for the remainder of the year.
Some in the Assembly believe, however, that the state Office for Temporary Disability Assistance can establish a system through regulations, without legislative approval. Michael Whyland, a spokesman for the Assembly's Democratic majority, said the conference will first look at the regulatory route before passing a bill.
"It may be able to be done by regulation, and if not, we'll look at legislation," Whyland said.
The bill would keep individuals out of a public assistance program for one month for a first offense, three months for a second and permanently for a third. For retailers, they would face fines for the first two offenses in a five-year period and a suspension of their EBT license for a third.
It was passed in the Senate by an unofficial vote of 52-9. The legislation had support from Warren County District Attorney Kate Hogan, who said the state "owes the taxpayer more oversight and better accountability."
"Taxpayers expect their hard-earned money to go for the necessities of people in need and not to pay for someone to frolic around town," Hogan said.
Ron Deutsch, executive director of New Yorkers For Fiscal Fairness, said the Senate GOP -- which controls the chamber with four breakaway Democrats -- should look at their own spending before going after public-assistance recipients.
"The Senate Republicans should stop persecuting low-income New Yorkers and say that they're frivolously spending money when in fact that's exactly what they're doing -- whether it be through economic development programs or using their own campaign funds for whatever they want to use them for," Deutsch said.