Alabama Senate panel OKs bill to lift lifetime SNAP, TANF bans for people with felony drug conviction

An Alabama Senate committee Wednesday approved a bill that would allow people who were convicted of a drug-related felony to regain eligibility for food assistance or cash welfare benefits. The Senate Fiscal Responsibility and Accountability (FR&A) Committee voted 5-2 to send the bill to the full Senate for consideration.

Alabama is one of just 10 states where people who were convicted of a drug felony face a lifetime eligibility ban under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Alabama is also one of only 12 states to apply a similar ban to benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. The bans apply even to people with a lone offense decades ago.

SB 303, sponsored by Sen. Linda Coleman, D-Birmingham, would allow otherwise eligible people to receive SNAP and TANF benefits even if they have a prior felony drug conviction, as long as they have completed their sentence or are complying with their probation terms, including any court-ordered drug treatment.

It was clear during the lively committee discussion of SB 303 that many people saw unfairness in a policy that denies eligibility only to those convicted of a felony drug crime. “A person that rapes, robs or kills can come out [of prison] and receive SNAP,” Coleman said. “This bill just levels the playing field.”

Another Senate committee last month approved a proposal – SB 63, sponsored by Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose – to require drug testing for TANF applicants who had drug convictions within the last five years. Several members of the Senate FR&A Committee asked whether Pittman’s bill would apply to newly eligible people under SB 303.

Both Coleman and a representative of the Department of Human Resources agreed that SB 63 would apply to TANF applicants, but they said federal law forbids drug testing as a condition of SNAP eligibility.

After a minor, uncontroversial amendment, the committee voted 5-2 for SB 303. Voting in favor were Sens. Paul Bussman, R-Cullman; Coleman; Del Marsh, R-Anniston; Bryan Taylor, R-Prattville; and Phil Williams, R-Rainbow City. Voting “no” were Sens. Rusty Glover, R-Semmes, and Clay Scofield, R-Guntersville.

The Legislature will return Thursday for the 14th of 30 allowable meeting days during the 2014 regular session, which is expected to last until early April.

By Carol Gundlach, policy analyst. Posted Feb. 12, 2014.