Congress passed the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 on February 17. In addition to the more publicized provisions such as the payroll tax cut extension, Unemployment Compensation extension and program changes, and Medicare “doc fix,” it also extends the TANF Block Grant through September 30, 2012. The TANF Extension provisions are in Title IV of the bill, Sections 4001-4005 start at page numbered 99 (page 100 of the PDF) in the Conference Report linked at http://docs.house.gov/billsthisweek/20120213/CRPT-112hrpt-HR3630.pdf .
The TANF extension adds two new provisions:
Sec. 4003 on data exchange standardization for improved interoperability. This provision requires HHS to set (by proposed and final rule) data exchange standards for information that must be reported under TANF. Such standards should be a useful improvement in the quality and usability of TANF information.
Sec. 4004 on prohibiting EBT transactions in liquor stores, casinos and adult entertainment venues. This section requires state to maintain policies and practices as necessary to prevent assistance provided under the State program funded under this part from being used in any electronic benefit transfer transaction in casino, liquor store or adult entertainment venue (and each of these is defined in the bill.) The law imposes a penalty of up to 5 percent of the TANF block grant amount if HHS determines that a state has not implemented and maintained such policies within two years of enactment of this law. See below for more detail on this section.
The TANF extension, like the two prior extensions for 2012, did not include any funds for Supplemental Grants for the 17 states that have received them every year under TANF until now. This means there will be no Supplemental Grant funding for 2012. This also means that the funding for the Contingency Fund will remain available for that purpose (rather than being redirected to fund Supplemental Grants as it was in 2011). The $612 million appropriated for the Contingency Fund for 2012 has been significantly depleted and likely will run out in March, only half way through the fiscal year. Information about 2012 Contingency Fund awards is at http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/ofa/data-reports/tanf_contingency_awards.html.
Moreover, TANF is extended only through the end of the federal fiscal year, not through December 31, 2012 as we had hoped for. This means that another extension or reauthorization will need to be acted on in the fall, before the November elections, rather than being able to wait until the lame duck session after the elections.
More information on EBT access restrictions
The new law provision requires states to implement procedures to block any electronic fund, ATM, or POS access in certain locations. We think this type of “EBT blocking” requirement is much preferable to an overall restriction on how recipients can “use” any cash TANF benefit (which some states have enacted and had been in the original proposal in Congress). Blocking EBT access also may be more effective in putting an end to the story than an unenforceable, or arbitrarily enforced, restriction on use. Several states have had success in implementing this type of blocking and we will be sharing information from the California experience soon.
However, we have been concerned that in some areas, a liquor store or a casino might be the only reasonably close or convenient access point. We were pleased that the final language adopted required states to include a plan to ensure that recipients of the assistance have adequate access to their cash assistance.
This section also requires states to ensure that recipients of assistance provided under the State program funded under this part have access to using or withdrawing assistance with minimal fees or charges, including an opportunity to access assistance with no fee or charges, and are provided information on applicable fees and surcharges that apply to electronic fund transactions involving the assistance, and that such information is made publicly available.
The language on state access plans and ensuring access with minimal fees (and information about fees) provide an important advocacy opportunity as states implement this provision in the upcoming two-year window before the penalty provisions kick in. Because there is a penalty attached to this provision, we believe that HHS has the authority to regulate in this area. We will be providing more information to advocates on opportunities, model approaches to access plans and minimal fee approaches. Because of the two-year implementation window, nothing needs to happen immediately (that is, this legislative session), but states should begin the process of evaluating what they need to do.
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