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Friday, Jul 25, 2014
Politics

Senate panel OKs higher penalties for welfare fraud


Published:

TALLAHASSEE — A Senate panel today cleared a bill cracking down on welfare fraud, despite a lack of evidence that there’s a problem.

The bill (SB 7044) was hurriedly but unanimously approved by the Senate Criminal Justice committee in the last five minutes of its two-hour meeting.

The legislation would create new felony crimes based on larger-dollar public assistance fraud and would provide for a “Crime Stoppers”-type program that rewards those who offer information leading to frauds being busted.

What’s not clear is the need for a new law.

“I am not aware of, nor does the staff analysis indicate, that there is any rampant fraud out there,” said Karen Woodall, executive director of the progressive-leaning Florida Center for Economic and Fiscal Policy.

The monthly maximum amount of cash assistance “that any family can get doesn’t make such a thing remotely worth it,” she said. That amount is $364 for a family of four.

When asked if there had been significant cases of fraud, committee chairman Greg Evers, R-Baker, answered, “There could be. I’m not sure on that. We’ll dig into that.”

Gov. Rick Scott and lawmakers have gotten tough on public assistance recipients in recent years, including passing a law in 2011 to require drug testing of welfare applicants. A federal judge struck down that law as unconstitutional late last year.

The harshest penalty for public assistance fraud, that of $200 or more, currently is a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and $5,000 fine.

The bill would make fraud of $20,000 to $99,999 a second-degree felony and fraud of $100,000 or more a first-degree felony.

Second-degree felonies are punishable by up to 15 years’ imprisonment and first-degree felonies up to 30 years in prison. The maximum fine for both is $10,000.

The measure also restricts temporary cash assistance administered by the state’s Department of Children and Families to 30 days when the recipient is out of state. That could save the state nearly $2 million a year, according to a staff analysis.

Some areas of public assistance, like food stamps, haven’t had many problems. Florida ranks first among states in ensuring food stamps go only to those who actually need them. That benefit is formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Florida notched $8 million in bonuses from the Department of Agriculture in 2012 for its accuracy, with less than 1 percent of Florida’s food stamp funding classified as waste or fraud, according to the department.

jrosica@tampatrib.com

(850) 765-0807

Twitter: @jlrosicaTBO

How to sound off

SB 7044 would create new felony crimes based on larger-dollar public assistance fraud.

The sponsor is the Senate’s Criminal Justice committee, chaired by Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, (850) 487-5002.

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