Lawmakers pushing for reform

By SLADE BLACKWELL / Guest Columnist

Alabama Republicans are working to pass a package of bills aimed at reforming many of the state’s public assistance programs.

The five-bill package includes measures to:

  • Allow for drug testing of welfare applicants with a drug conviction within the past five years
  • Restore community service, job training or work requirements for ablebodied food stamp recipients without dependents
  • Increase penalties for fraud in taxpayer-funded public assistance programs
  • Require welfare applicants to submit job applications before receiving benefits
  • Prohibit spending of welfare benefits on liquor, tobacco, casinos and strip clubs

The bills have already been approved by the Senate and are awaiting action by the Alabama House of Representatives.

With out-of-control federal spending, we have an obligation at the state level to make sure we are taking the necessary steps to promote fiscal responsibility and protect against abuses in the system.

For instance, drug testing in instances where welfare applicants have a prior drug conviction ensures that taxpayer-funded benefits are not enabling a reckless and oftentimes lifethreatening addiction.

We also believe that ablebodied food stamp recipients without dependents should participate in at least 20 hours of work, job training or community service a

week within three months of obtaining benefits. This is a common sense measure to help move people from dependency on government to self sufficiency.

Part of this process is making sure welfare applicants are only utilizing these taxpayer-funded benefits as a last resort. One of the bills we passed requires welfare applicants to apply for at least three jobs before receiving benefits. Everyone wins when a welfare applicant is able to find a job instead of having to rely on public assistance.

Unfortunately, many government assistance programs are seen as easy targets for fraud and abuse due to lack of enforcement of guidelines to guarantee accountability. That is why we passed a bill to make it a crime to defraud many state and federal government-funded assistance programs such as Medicaid, Social Security, food assistance and public housing. Estimates have shown that Alabama is losing millions each year to health care fraud and abuse alone.

The final bill in this package prohibits welfare recipients from spending benefit money on alcohol and tobacco, and at strip clubs and gambling facilities. According to reports from other states, millions in taxpayer-funded benefits have been spent on these things.

It is not only a serious exploitation of a wellintended program, but it is a slap in the face to taxpayers for these public dollars tobeusedinawaythatis completely opposite of the program’s intent. This kind of abuse shows a complete disregard for those who are genuinely in need.

Slade Blackwell is an Alabama state senator whose district includes a portion of Shelby County.