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Political, but reasonable; Limits on spending welfare money can prevent misuse of public funds

If it sounds like a no-brainer, that's because it is. It may also be politically astute in what could be a difficult political year for Republicans in the New York State Senate, but that does nothing to diminish the worthiness of a Senate measure to ban welfare recipients from using their taxpayer-funded benefits on cigarettes, alcohol, gambling or strip clubs.

The Senate approved the bill in an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote and, frankly, it's surprising the law even needed writing. Such restrictions are sensible enough that they could easily have been included when the welfare laws were first drafted. But that was a long time ago.

Sen. Thomas Libous, R-Broome County, says the measure is needed to comply with new federal regulations. 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. With that, New York risks losing $125 million next year.

Critics see a cynical political maneuver. Sen. Bill Perkins, D-Harlem, was one of only three senators to vote against the measure. He challenged supporters to produce any evidence that such misuses of welfare benefits was common. "If they have evidence that there's a rash of that, I'd like to see it," he said. So would we, frankly, but the truth is that this is one of those cases where both sides can have a point.

With less than five months until an election in which the Republicans' narrow Senate majority could be lost, it is not unthinkable that they see an advantage in demonstrating their vigilance against welfare recipients waving their public dollars at strippers. Who could be against that?

And that, of course, is the point. There is nothing to be against here, even if Republicans are playing this for political advantage. Welfare benefits are an essential component of the public safety net. It is in taxpayers' interest to ensure, as best as possible, that the money is being used for the fundamental matters for which it was intended: food, shelter, health and so on.

What is more, it is in everyone's interest to protect the integrity of the program so that it is shielded from political assault. That includes those who receive public assistance now and those who will need it in the future. It doesn't take much, especially in a time of soaring federal deficits and in a high-tax state, to revive bogus fears of hordes of welfare queens buying potato chips and pot with their government benefits.

This measure has no sponsor in the Assembly, but it's worth putting on the to-do list for the next session. While the Democratic-controlled chamber seems unlikely to pursue this matter, it is a more-than reasonable safeguard against the misuse of funds that are limited, even if they are often made to seem otherwise.