Mass. House defies governor on welfare spending crackdown

House lawmakers defied Governor Deval Patrick Wednesday and voted overwhelmingly to advance a measure that would prevent welfare recipients from spending their benefits on tattoos, firearms, jewelry and other items.

Patrick had sent the measure back to the Legislature Sunday, seeking changes and accusing lawmakers of “political grandstanding” on a hot-button issue.

House members, some of whom were incensed by the governor’s comments, rejected Patrick’s changes Wednesday and approved the measure he had rejected.


The legislation has gained momentum following the high-profile arrests of several welfare recipients accused of fraud and reports of some recipients using their benefits for items other than basic staples.

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Patrick, who grew up on welfare and has been a vocal ­defender of the system, sought several changes, declaring, “I’m not going to do anything that makes vulnerable people beg for their benefits.”

At the same time, he said, he would be willing to sign a companion bill that would ban liquor stores, casinos, strip clubs, gun shops, and cruise ships from accepting the cards.

On Wednesday, House lawmakers rejected Patrick’s proposed changes by a vote of 152 to 1. The lone member to side with the governor was state Representative Charley ­Murphy, a Burlington Democrat who has often tangled with House leaders and who plans to resign from the House next month.

Representative Carl M. ­Sciortino, a Somerville Democrat, was the only House member to debate the welfare bill on the floor. He said he supported the crackdown but did so with an “uneasy conscience.”


Sciortino said he wished lawmakers would focus on ways to lift welfare recipients out of poverty “rather than create barriers for people who are trying to survive and take care of their children.”

He also said the punishment for recipients who violate the ban and purchase any of the prohibited items would be ­unduly harsh.

A first offense would result in a $600 fine, a second offense in a $1,200 fine, and a third ­offense in the loss of benefits, he said.

The Senate must approve the House measure before it would be sent back to the governor, who would have a chance to veto it and send it back to the Legislature again.

Michael Levenson
can be reached at
mlevenson@globe.com. Follow
him on Twitter @mlevenson.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the items that would be banned under a legislative proposal regarding Electronic Benefit Transfer cards. Alcohol, lottery tickets, and tobacco are already banned under a 2011 law. This year’s bill would add to the list of banned purchases such items as tattoos, firearms, and jewelry.