Citing what she felt would have been redundancies in state law, Gov. Christine Gregoire rejected a provision in Senate Bill 5921 that would have given individuals reporting fraud and abuse the option of speaking to an ombudsman within the state auditor’s office rather than the state Department of Social and Health Services if for some reason DSHS did not take action. After making a short statement explaining her veto, the governor signed into law the first substantive reform of the state’s welfare program since 1997.
Sen. Mike Carrell, whose original anti-fraud bill became the foundation for SB 5921, said he was glad to see the bill become law but extremely disappointed with the governor’s partial veto and vowed to return with stronger legislation next session.
“In my original proposal, the entire fraud-investigation unit at DSHS would have moved to the state auditor’s office,” the Lakewood Republican said after the signing. “During negotiations, it became clear the opposition didn’t want the auditor to have anything to do with DSHS fraud investigation.”
“I fought to get the ombudsman component put into the bill as a secondary line of defense,” Carrell continued. “And after the governor’s veto today, the auditor’s legislative liaison called to let me know he supported that provision as well. Without it, there’s nobody outside of DSHS to oversee their fraud investigation operations. In fact, it appears the agency will continue to police itself, and we’ve all seen how well that has worked.”
Carrell was referring to the multitude of news stories just before the 2011 legislative session regarding fraud and abuse in the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. One report by a Seattle television station even led to the resignation of DSHS Assistant Secretary Troy Hutson.
“The bottom line is that Senate Bill 5921 is a good first step toward weeding out fraud and abuse in state government programs, which is why I support the bill’s intent,” Carrell said, “but I feel cheated that the governor chose to veto one of the bill’s most important tools, and I think the citizens of Washington will too.”
Under the new law, a public-assistance recipient cannot legally use an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card or cash obtained with an EBT card for tattoo or body art, to purchase tobacco or alcohol, for gambling, bail bonds, or adult entertainment. He or she also cannot sell, exchange or donate an EBT card to another person. The law also creates the Office of Fraud and Accountability within DSHS which will report directly to the secretary.