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Use of EBT cards discussed in Concord

New Hampshire Union Leader

July 06. 2012 10:03PM

CONCORD - Some New Hampshire lawmakers want to close loopholes in the state's Electronic Benefit Card system, the financial assistance program that has been in the spotlight since a clerk at a Peterborough convenience store refused to let a man buy cigarettes with the card.

Jackie Whiton of Antrim met with House Speaker William O'Brien and several other lawmakers at the State House on Friday, discussing the stance that got her fired from the store and the whirlwind of publicity that she hopes will lead to change.

EBT cards are funded with public money, which Whiton does not believe should be used for alcohol, tobacco or other non-essential items. She had no idea so many people agreed with her and has received overwhelming support.

'I've seen so much misuse of a lot of things in the system, and I just think it's time that it stopped,' said Whiton, who was invited by O'Brien, R-Mont Vernon, for the meeting in Concord.

A news conference followed the meeting and Whiton showed she is getting used to reporters, who seem to have been calling her since she was fired May 31 from the Big Apple store where she had worked for six years.

'It's just something I could not sit back and watch it happen at the taxpayers' expense,' Whiton said. 'If people want to drink or smoke that's fine. Pay for it themselves.'

While EBT funds are intended for necessities for those in need of money for things like food and rent, the money can also be used for a six-pack or a pack of smokes with no consequence. And even if clerks like Whiton refuse to accept EBTs as payment for certain items, the cards can also be used to get cash, which has no restrictions once it leaves the ATM machine.

'There is an expectation that those who we assist will receive and use the system honorably,' O'Brien said. 'We have these electronic benefit cards and we're finding that funds are put on those cards that have no control on how they're being used.'

While O'Brien and his colleagues agreed on the idea that something is needed to fix the system, but the problem is nationwide and not limited to New Hampshire. Still, O'Brien said Granite State lawmakers should take a look when the Legislature convenes in January at potential ways to limit the use of EBTs.

'We can lead the way if necessary for the country in ensuring that funds given to folks for public assistance are used to meet the needs of their lives and not the pleasures of their lives,' O'Brien said.

It may not be as easy as it sounds.

O'Brien said one possibility would be to shut down the use of EBTs as cash cards. O'Brien said technology has placed credit card billing for nearly any service out there and suggested people could use EBTs as a debit-card only with no cash-back option. It's just one idea of many that are sure to come if state lawmakers do tackle the issue next year.

State Rep. Elaine Swinford, R-Center Barnstead, said the whole idea to issue the electronic cards put an end to checks that could be cashed and the money used outside basic necessities.

'It was to make it so that they couldn't take the money and go and buy beer and alcohol and this and that and everything else. It was supposed to have a better control and somehow that got missed,' Swinford said. 'I'm hoping, thanks to Jackie, that we can get back to what it's for. It's to help people, not to give them free reign.'

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