Jul 10, 2012 at 8:56 am
ST. PAUL, MN (KNSI) - With the turn of the calendar to July, Minnesotans trying to use their Electronic Benefit Transfer cards to pay for alcohol or cigarettes will face tough penalties and eventually could even lose their access to benefits all together.
"Using money out of the Health and Human Services budget to purchase things that are detrimental to your health, certainly doesn't make a lot of sense," said Marty Siefert, former state Representative and one-time gubernatorial candidate.
Siefert, on KNSI's Ox in the Afternoon, said the first time someone tries to use their benefits for a restricted purchase they will lose access to benefits for one year. A second offense comes with a two year loss of benefits, and a third penalty results in permanent disqualification from the welfare program.
Seifert says feeding unhealthy addictions doesn't do anyone any good, particularly when that state money could go in many other directions. He would like to see more reform to the program, but is happy with this first step.
"There are certainly a lot of us that would like to dismantle the welfare state, but certainly this is a great start," Seifert said. "It is very difficult to solve all of these issues. People are probably going to figure out ways around this, but at least we are going to try to do what we can to put some control mechanisms in."
After originally finding a number of flaws with the system in four or five years ago, Seifert and other lawmakers now have their first real strides in cutting back on what they see as improper use of the EBT funds. And the reforms are not over yet.
Starting next March, the cash portion of an EBT card will only be usable in Minnesota or the direct neighboring states of Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.
"You cannot use the cards outside of those areas, so it is progress. No more Virgin Islands and Hawaii," Siefert said, referring to more findings his office made that showed people using their Minnesota benefits in far reaching locales.
More recently KSTP-TV found Minnesota cash benefits being used 54,000 times during a one-month period in 2010 in all 50 U.S. states, including Hawaii, as well as the U.S. Virigin Islands.
So just what benefits will those using their funds improperly risk losing? Seifert said the programs include the Minnesota Family Investment program, the Diversionary Work program and also General Assistance.
"There's different names of them...they are basically going to tell people we are done with you if you're going to do this," Siefert said.
As for more reform down the road to maybe include changes to federal food stamps Seifert says there are plenty of problems with the program, but fixing them is out of the state's hands.
"I don't like the idea of food stamps being eligible to be pay for junk food," Seifert said. "But the federal government governs that so you have to talk to your federal lawmakers about tightening that.
The new Minnesota EBT purchase restrictions went into effect on July 1.