Lawmaker: On welfare? No beer, HBO for you - East Valley Tribune: News

Lawmaker: On welfare? No beer, HBO for you

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Posted: Tuesday, February 9, 2010 5:33 pm | Updated: 3:31 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

The way Frank Antenori sees it, you shouldn't be smoking or drinking if the government is helping to pay for your food or health care.

And you shouldn't be buying an expensive TV or car, shouldn't have a cell phone unless it's your only phone and shouldn't have cable TV with HBO or Showtime.

The Tucson Republican is sponsoring legislation to make public assistance off-limits to those who do not comply.

As crafted, HB2770 would be pretty much self-enforcing. Welfare recipients would have to sign an affidavit each time they go through eligibility screening, promising to live within the rules.

Antenori said, though, this is just the first step. He wants the Department of Economic Security to craft rules to actually enforce the restrictions.

But that doesn't mean welfare recipients can ignore the requirements in the interim. Antenori said he foresees a system where people report those they see at the grocery store using food stamps and then pulling out cash for that bottle of wine or pack of cigarettes.

That would mean a single bottle of beer could cost a family its food stamps, free health care and any other welfare benefits. Antenori said he has no problem with that.

"If you don't have enough money to buy your own food to exist for your own sustenance, and you need some other hardworking taxpayer that's out there and working and paying taxes to subsidize your food, then you shouldn't have the luxury, at the expense of some other taxpayer, to go out and enjoy the niceties in life," he said.

Several of these affected programs use federal dollars, in whole or in part. But Antenori said he believes the state is still free to set eligibility standards.

DES spokesman Steve Meissner, whose agency screens applicants for all those programs, said the ability of the state to impose its own conditions "varies from program to program."

Monica Coury, spokeswoman for the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, said Antenori's bill, at least as crafted, would not affect eligibility for her agency's programs. Antenori said that if that's true, he will amend the measure when it goes to committee.

While welfare recipients would not be able to buy alcohol and tobacco products, they could acquire other items that are not a necessity - up to a point.

HB2770 would let anyone getting government assistance purchase a vehicle worth no more than $5,000. They could get a television as long as it doesn't cost more than $300.

Antenori said he sees no problem with people having "basic" cable service, saying it's "almost a necessity."

"If you allow for basic cable, they can still get their news and information," he said. And Arizonans would still get access to emergency broadcast bulletins.

Antenori said he does not envision state officials actually knocking on doors to search the homes of public assistance recipients to see if they have a big-screen TV or a cell phone. Instead, he wants Arizonans watching out for cheaters.

"People put $100 of food up on the register, run the EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer card) through, and then throw two big jugs of booze and two cartons of cigarettes (onto the conveyor belt) and pull $100 out of their pocket. If you see that, you call a 1-800 number and notify somebody," Antenori said. "And we'll have it investigated."

Antenori said he sees it "all the time."

"If you've got 80 bucks to buy a gallon of booze and two cartons of cigarettes, then why the heck are we paying for your food? It's a priority issue," he said. "Somebody's priorities are screwed up."

Antenori said he has not considered whether there should be programs to help those on public assistance quit smoking so they don't lose their benefits. But he said he's not sure they're necessary, saying people could just quit.

"Not a lot of people are successful," he acknowledged. "But people have quit cold turkey."

He said it comes down to priorities.

"If you're basically hungry and can't afford to feed yourself, then I don't think you should be able to afford to buy cigarettes," Antenori said.

The measure, which has 12 co-sponsors, has not yet been set for a hearing.

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