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January 11. 2014 6:22PM

EBT crusader to bring fight to State House


Jackie Whiton in her Antrim home, was fired last month from her job at the Big Apple in Peterborough after refusing to accept a state assistance EBT card for payment. (Meghan Pierce/Union Leader Corresponden)

Jackie Whiton in her Antrim home, was fired last month from her job at the Big Apple in Peterborough after refusing to accept a state assistance EBT card for payment. (Meghan Pierce/Union Leader Correspondent)

With signatures from hundreds of like-minded Granite Staters, Jackie Whiton is taking her fight against what she sees as misuse of taxpayer dollars by welfare recipients to Concord on Tuesday.

That's when a House committee will take up a measure to bar people who get cash assistance from the state from using that money to buy cigarettes or alcohol.

Whiton was fired on May 31, 2012, by a Peterborough convenience store after she refused to sell cigarettes to a man using an EBT (electronic benefit transfer) card.

The incident made the 67-year-old Antrim grandmother an overnight media sensation and a reluctant spokeswoman for reform.

"I got calls from all four corners of the United States," Whiton said.

"What I brought out, a lot of people weren't aware of, and once they were made aware of it, they got upset."

She's a smoker herself, but she said, "I pay for my own. I don't feel the taxpayers' money should be spent like this."

Since she was fired, Whiton has collected more than 1,300 signatures on a petition, she said. A meatcutter at a local market collected signatures, and a woman from Colebrook who uses an EBT card for food stamps - a different program from cash assistance - called to ask for a copy of the petition. "She got 200 signatures."

House Bill 1213 would bar use of EBT cards - or cash obtained with the cards - to buy alcoholic beverages or tobacco products.

Rep. Frank Sapareto, R-Derry, said he's gotten about 50 calls from constituents thanking him for sponsoring the measure. He praised Whiton for shining a light on the issue.

"I commend that clerk for standing up for what she believed is right and standing up for what the majority of people who are paying the bills think, too," he said.

There's also a Senate bill, SB 203, that would go even further, prohibiting use of EBT cards or cash obtained with the cards for purchasing tobacco products, alcoholic beverages, lottery tickets, firearms or adult entertainment. It also would add businesses engaged in body piercing, branding or tattooing to the state's newly adopted list of places where the cards cannot be used.

SB 203 would limit cash withdrawals made with EBT cards to $25 per transaction and require recipients to keep receipts for purchases made with those funds and submit them to the state when they reapply for benefits.

Retailers' role

Terry Smith is director of the state Division of Family Assistance, which administers programs that give out cash assistance through EBT cards to needy families with children, seniors, refugees and the disabled. Those programs are distinct from food stamps, which are also provided through EBT cards.

According to Smith, the current caseload for cash assistance programs is around 13,000, including 3,428 families on Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), 7,709 on Aid to the Permanently and Totally Disabled, 1,510 on Old Age Assistance and 149 on Aid to the Needy Blind.

"All of these are provided on EBT, and all of these are equally subject to the restrictions in the law," he said.

Smith said his staff will implement any new restrictions lawmakers pass. But he said there are enforcement issues with both measures that could affect every retailer in the state.

When someone uses an EBT card to buy groceries with food stamps, he pushes an "EBT" button that alerts the clerk to make sure no prohibited items are purchased. But when someone uses an EBT card to access cash benefits at a store, it's processed as a debit card, Smith said, so the clerk wouldn't know whether the person was using it to purchase banned items unless the clerk asked to see the card. And if the person pays with cash obtained from an ATM with the card, it's impossible to tell.

While some larger retailers may have the capability of blocking bar codes for certain banned items at checkout if someone uses an EBT card, that is not available everywhere, Smith said.

"We can have a statewide automatic block of a specific retailer location, but we can't do that with a specific type of purchase," he said. "There's no such thing yet as a universal bar code."

Smith said it's up to lawmakers to decide whether they want to ask retailers to look at every debit card to make sure it's not an EBT cash transaction.

As for SB 203, Smith said the $25 withdrawal could be problematic for welfare recipients who depend on cash assistance to pay rent. He estimated that to withdraw sufficient funds to pay $700 in rent, it could cost nearly $100 in ATM fees.

And he said the receipt provision would have cost and workload implications for his staff. "We're talking about 13,000 cash-case redeterminations a year, and each one of those cases would need to be bringing in a shoebox full of receipts for each of six months," he said. "Do they want us to review each receipt to look for a prohibited purchase?"

Sarah Mattson, staff attorney for New Hampshire Legal Assistance, said the proposed limit on cash withdrawals would cost clients hundreds of dollars in ATM fees each year. She said many of her clients don't have bank accounts and use their cash assistance benefits to pay their rent and child care.

Mattson said both bills put the burden of enforcement on retail clerks, who could end up confused about which products can be purchased under different programs.

She also pointed out many people who receive cash assistance benefits also have other sources of income - seniors on Old Age Assistance who also get Social Security, for instance, or TANF families who work - so there's no way for a store clerk to know whether someone paying cash is using their EBT benefits for a purchase, she said.

"What you do is cast a cloud of suspicion over anyone who comes into a store and makes a purchase with cash and appears to you to be poor," she said.

Sen. Jeanie Forrester, R-Meredith, said her bill, sb 203, is based on recommendations issued last September after a performance audit of the EBT card program by the Office of Legislative Budget Assistant. She also reviewed what other states do to restrict EBT purchases and talked with local welfare administrators here.

A former town administrator in New Durham and Tuftonboro, Forrester said, "There are people who really need help, and we want to make sure that they get the help that they need.

"I think what we're trying to do is make sure that, because we're in a time when funds are scarce, that funds are used in an appropriate way."

Cash assistance, she said, is meant to help people pay for things they cannot buy with food stamps, such as paper products and diapers. "It was never meant to buy cigarettes or alcohol."

But state law did not clearly address where those cash benefits could or could not be used - until now.

Last year, in response to new federal regulations, lawmakers banned welfare recipients from using EBT cards, or cash obtained with them, at gaming establishments, liquor stores and adult entertainment venues; RSA 167:7-b also bars such places from accepting the cards or cash obtained through them. Those restrictions just took effect Jan. 1.

Unlike the Senate bill, HB 1213 has a Democratic co-sponsor, Rep. Peter Leishman of Peterborough, who said it was Whiton who inspired him.

He said it shouldn't be a partisan issue. "People in need should get help, but they shouldn't be buying cigarettes or booze with state or federal funds."

Leishman said he doesn't think enforcement would be a problem for stores, which already enforce age restrictions for alcohol or cigarette purchases. "I wouldn't see it as being terribly onerous for them to do that."

Why does Whiton think her story struck such a chord? "Because people are sick of it, that's why," she said. "There are people who have trouble heating their homes, and they're having trouble putting groceries on the table. ... I know of elderly people who can't afford to go to the doctor or their medications.

"But yet they keep handing these cards out like candy to babies."
.

The Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee hearing on HB 1213 is at 2 p.m. Tuesday in Room 205 of the Legislative Office Building.

swickham@unionleader.com


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