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New bans on welfare purchases

New York would prohibit welfare recipients from spending their tax-funded benefits on cigarettes, alcohol, gambling and strip clubs under a bill passed overwhelmingly by the State Senate on Tuesday.

Ten other states have already ruled that social services can't be spent on items from beer to guns.

"I understand that people need food stamps," said Republican Sen. Thomas Libous, a Broome County Republican. "What I don't understand is why they need to go to strip clubs, buy lottery tickets, go to a 'racino' or buy alcohol."

Libous said New York must restrict the spending by recipients whose benefits are linked to debit cards to conform to federal law. President Obama signed a law in February that will require states to restrict how the cash portion of social services is spent, or lose 5 percent of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families funding. New York risks losing $125 million next year.

Many states, including New York, issue welfare recipients an Electronic Benefits Transfer card, or EBT card, with cash benefits. The systems have simplified the distribution of financial assistance, but they also provide a way of tracking where the benefits are withdrawn.

New York's Republican senators who led the bipartisan 56-3 vote Tuesday said New Yorkers are amazed the law allows such spending now.

Now the bill goes to the Democrat-led Assembly, which hasn't introduced it.

Meanwhile, after the Senate's Republican majority opposed it, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo confirmed Tuesday that his proposal to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana possessed in public is dead.

He had introduced the bill with much fanfare earlier this month. He noted that the misdemeanor charge for public possession was unfairly snaring New Yorkers in "stop and frisk" policing in New York City.

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