Bill to end lifetime SNAP, TANF bans still alive but loses procedural vote in Alabama House

A bill to allow people convicted of a drug-related felony to regain eligibility for food assistance or cash welfare benefits in Alabama suffered a setback Wednesday when it failed to clear a procedural hurdle in the state House. The House voted 55-43 Wednesday to consider SB 303, sponsored by Sen. Linda Coleman, D-Birmingham. That majority fell short of the three-fifths support needed under House rules to advance the bill to a floor vote.

The House still could reconsider the bill, which the Senate passed 18-8 in February, though that is not guaranteed. This year’s regular session will end Thursday, and many bills still await House consideration.

Rep. Rod Scott, D-Fairfield, said SB 303 would address the imbalance of a state policy that denies eligibility to those convicted of a felony drug offense but not other crimes. “This is a very simple bill that brings about fairness,” Scott said. “These people have served their time, and I think it’s only right that they be able to take advantage of these programs.”

Rep. Kerry Rich, R-Albertville, spoke against the bill, saying he would like to see public assistance bans extended to apply to people convicted of many other crimes as well. Rich urged his colleagues to join him in opposing SB 303.

Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, said many people convicted of drug crimes struggle with addiction and deserve a second chance. “We’re making it so criminal to the point where we’re forgetting about the sickness,” Warren said. “The biggest thing about Christianity is forgiveness.”

SB 303 would allow thousands of Alabamians who were convicted of a drug-related felony but are otherwise eligible for assistance to regain eligibility for benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. To regain eligibility under the bill, people with a felony drug conviction must have completed their sentence or be complying successfully with their probation conditions. The bill’s provisions would expire in three years unless lawmakers renew them.

Alabama is one of 10 states where people convicted of a drug felony face a lifetime SNAP eligibility ban, Scott said, and one of only 12 states to apply a similar ban to TANF benefits. The bans apply even to people with a decades-old offense.

House approves certain limits on use of TANF benefits

A bill to prevent TANF recipients from using EBT cards in bars, liquor stores, casinos, tattoo parlors and adult entertainment establishments met a different fate Wednesday. The House voted 80-22 for SB 116, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, which also would prohibit using TANF benefits to buy alcohol or tobacco. The bill will go to Gov. Robert Bentley.

Rep. Mac Buttram, R-Cullman, said Alabama could lose 5 percent of its federal TANF funding if the state does not approve such benefit restrictions. But Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery, questioned whether the EBT card bill would place an unfair stigma on low-income Alabamians. “I don’t understand for the life of me why we’re spending time on this,” Knight said Tuesday night during debate over SB 116.

Lawmakers will return Thursday for the final day of the 2014 regular session.

By Chris Sanders, communications director. Policy analyst Carol Gundlach contributed to this report. Posted April 2, 2014.