No more lap dances or slot machines, House tells welfare recipients

WASHINGTON — A House vote Wednesday could make it more difficult for people on welfare to get a lap dance or pull levers at the slot machines.

By a 395-27 vote, lawmakers passed a bill that would require states to block welfare debit cards from being used at casinos, strip clubs and liquor stores.

The bill aims to close what sponsors called a "strip club loophole" in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

A series of news investigations uncovered the problem, said Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La.

■ In Washington state, 13,000 people withdrew an estimated $2 million in welfare cash at casinos, a Seattle TV station reported early last year.

■ In 2010, California welfare recipients withdrew $1.8 billion from casino ATMs using their cards, state officials acknowledged to the Los Angeles Times.

"If someone is in need of assistance, what on earth are they doing getting cash in a casino?" said Rep. Geoff Davis, R-Ky. "It is an inappropriate use of taxpayer dollars and the taxpayers’ trust."

The provision was put into a separate payroll tax bill in December, but that bill has been stalled. It was brought up separately on Wednesday for an election-year vote that drew broad bipartisan support.

All three Nevada House lawmakers voted for it over the objections of the state’s gaming industry, which is vigilant for all legislation that affects casinos.

"While I am wary of placing additional burdens on the gaming industry — the lifeblood of our economy — we cannot tolerate taxpayer dollars being spent at strip clubs or liquor stores," said Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev.

Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., said the bill was "common sense."

"We certainly do not want TANF welfare funds to be ‘gambled,’ and many of our member companies voluntarily work with state regulators to prevent this activity from happening," the American Gaming Association said in a statement.

"We are concerned, however, that the characterization of our industry in this bill potentially creates a dangerous precedent of trying to carve out one type of resort (casinos) from all other types of resorts."

The casinos also objected to being lumped with strip clubs and liquor stores. Those establishments "have a much more narrow scope of business," the gaming association said.

The bill would order states to comply within two years or risk losing 5 percent of their federal welfare grants.

Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., said that while he had reservations about how the bill would be carried out, "I think Nevada can do its part to help ensure that this assistance is used as it was intended."

"It should be noted that casinos offer many forms of entertainment beyond gaming, but I think that we can all agree that the TANF program should not be used to pay for entertainment," Amodei said.

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