Raleigh, N.C. — County Departments of Social Service would be required to conduct criminal background checks on those applying for federal benefits under a bill that cleared the House Health and Human Services Committee on Tuesday.
If someone applying for Food and Nutrition Assistance, what many people call food stamps, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which are cash payments, is found to have an outstanding warrant, social service workers would be required to report them to local law enforcement under House Bill 392.
"Local law enforcement and all county agencies should work together to keep the public as safe as possible," said Rep. Dean Arp, R-Union. He said federal law already prohibits benefits from going to fleeing felons and parole and probation violators.
Under current law, local DSS offices may ask someone if they're a fugitive or conduct a criminal background check, but they are not allowed to share that information with local sheriffs or other law enforcement agencies. Arp said the Union County DSS office got in trouble with the state for sharing information that led to arrests.
"I share your sentiment with regard to cooperation," said Rep. Nathan Baskerville, D-Vance. However, he worried that people who had low-level warrants sworn out against them with little evidence could run into trouble collecting benefits.
"It's a very thin burden for people to get arrest warrants," Baskerville said, adding that someone might swear out a warrant just to be spiteful against someone collecting benefits. "I can see how this would be abused."
Bill backers pointed out that the ability to collect benefits is governed by federal law, which specifies certain types of fugitives. Others with such low-level warrants would merely be reported to the police under the bill.
"It's outrageous, quite honestly, that our current law could be interpreted to say DSS can't talk to law enforcement," said Rep. Bert Jones, R-Rockingham.
Others worried that the bill does not provide any new money for local DSS offices, some of which may not do background checks now.
"Who is going to pay for the additional records checks," asked Lori Ann Harris, a lobbyist for the North Carolina Association of County Directors of Social Services.
"Are we required to go back and do records checks on all the recipients who have been approved in the past?" she asked, estimating that could require hundreds of thousands of checks.
The measure passed on a voice vote. It next goes to the House floor.