Welfare Reform Debate Next Week! While We’re Waiting, Let’s Catch Up.

Oh, boy. The House of Representatives will be debating welfare reform next Wednesday (11/6). The bill that will be the subject of the debate will be released tomorrow and proposed amendments are due on Monday.

While we’re waiting, let’s catch up on one of the Legislature’s favorite welfare reform activities — the endless pursuit of EBT card fraud. What’s been going on there of late?

You may recall that last year, the Legislature wanted the Welfare Department to devise a way to keep EBT cards from being used to purchase certain items, such as jewelry and tobacco. In resisting this idea, Governor Patrick pointed out that to accomplish its goal would require each store that accepted EBT cards to adopt technology to teach its cash registers how to block the sale of any items that the Legislature wished to ban. That technology does not currently exist. He thought it made more sense to prohibit certain retailers (gun shops, for example) from accepting EBT cards at all than to try to restrict which items can be purchased at stores that do accept EBT cards.

The Governor might have thought that his argument would be received sympathetically. After all, the Legislature had just sent him a bill freeing grocery stores from the requirement of putting price stickers on individual items and allowing them instead to place scanners in their stores for shoppers who are interested in verifying prices. The Legislature often celebrates this kind of legislation as “throwing off the wet blanket of burdensome governmental regulation and making Massachusetts more competitive.”

But governmental regulation in the name of preventing welfare fraud is definitely not of the burdensome, wet-blanket variety.

The Governor probably undermined his cause by accusing his opposition of indulging in “political grandstanding.” After savoring this morsel of umbrage, the Legislature insisted on its original position. The Governor then signed the bill, but he indicated that it was technologically impossible to enforce and that the Welfare Department’s fraud hotline would continue to be its primary source of information on EBT card misuse.

Enjoying this second opportunity for outrage (“apparently when something becomes law in Massachusetts it doesn’t become law!”), the Legislature then required the Welfare Department to make regular reports detailing all instances in which they received information that EBT cards were being used to purchase prohibited items.

So the first of these reports is out. Its six pages recite the steps that the Patrick administration has been taking to combat welfare fraud: enhancing data matches, automating data, buying more data (including the ominously-named “Death Match Master File”), updating the hotline fraud complaint report, etc., etc. Then comes the news. The Department’s hotline received six allegations of EBT user fraud during the reporting period. Five of those six allegations were referred to the State Auditor’s office, which has its own welfare fraud unit. The Auditor has concluded that there is insufficient evidence to proceed on three of those allegations and is continuing to investigate the other two.

And the one case that the Department investigated? It found that $7.17 had been spent on a tobacco product in violation of law. Collection efforts are in full swing. Once you deduct the $3.51 in tobacco tax that went back to the state anyway, the object of this pursuit is the recovery of $3.66.

But I wouldn’t expect this report to dampen the enthusiasm of our Legislature, particularly the “torch-and-pitchfork” caucus (made up mostly but not entirely of Republicans), in its quest to find fraud. That the Department’s fraud hotline yielded only six cases can mean only that it’s not trying hard enough. Rampant welfare fraud, like the Weapons of Mass Destruction from the last decade, is out there for sure. Someplace.

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