House bill would require background checks on those seeking federal benefits

jfrank@newsobserver.comApril 2, 2013 

— A county social services office would need to conduct a criminal background check on all applicants and recipients of federal food and cash assistance under legislation Republican lawmakers say is necessary to protect the integrity of the programs.

State Rep. Dean Arp, the bill’s sponsor, said any applicant or current recipient with a pending warrant for a felony charge or probation or parole violation is not eligible for the program and the county offices need to do more to keep them from receiving aid.

“This would save the state money by making sure that the aid goes to those law-abiding citizens first, those who most need it,” the Monroe Republican told a House committee Tuesday.

County Department of Social Services workers ask applicants if they have any outstanding warrants but don’t check the response against criminal databases. Under the bill, county officials would need to report any pending warrants and other personal information about applicants and recipients to local law enforcement as soon as possible, a current point of contention in some areas.

“It’s outrageous, quite honestly, that our current law could be interpreted to say DSS can’t talk to law enforcement,” said Rep. Bert Jones, a Reidsville Republican and committee chairman.

But Lori Ann Harris, the lobbyist for the N.C. Association of County Boards of Social Services, is worried about the new procedure dissuading families from seeking federal assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Food and Nutrition Services programs.

“We sort of consider ourselves as a help for people,” she said in an interview. “If people think they are going to be prosecuted or arrested for even seeking our services, that’s a big concern for us.”

Harris also asked the bill’s supporters about the cost of such a requirement and who will pay for background checks for the 1.8 million people in North Carolina who currently receive assistance. But lawmakers gave no answers before approving the measure and sending it to the full House, which may take a vote this week.

“The county DSSs are just strapped,” Harris said. “We cannot afford an unfunded mandate.”

Democratic Rep. Nathan Baskerville, a Henderson attorney, said he doesn’t want convicted felons to receive the federal aid but the burden for a warrant is too low to jeopardize someone’s benefits. “I can see how this would very easily be abused,” he said. “I don’t think this will save the state money, it’s going to cost the state money.”

The legislation – House bill 392 – wouldn’t affect the eligibility of other family members and those with outstanding warrants would be eligible once the matter is resolved.

“A background check,” said Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Charlotte Republican, “seems to be a reasonable thing to ask people to do if they are applying for benefits.”

Frank: 919-829-4698

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