South Dakota lawmakers expect to save money if they drop TANF ban for drug felonies

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PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — More than two decades after a nationwide crackdown, people in difficult economic circumstances who were convicted for state or federal crimes involving illegal drugs in South Dakota might get to start receiving money again from the state Department of Social Services.

The state Senate Judiciary Committee voted 6-1 Tuesday to endorse SB 96. The bill would lift South Dakota’s lifetime ban against drug felons receiving financial assistance from the department’s Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program known as TANF.

The ban has been a federal requirement since 1996, but only nine of the nation’s 50 states still follow it. TANF is based on household income, so that families quickly move off the aid as their economic situations improve.

While TANF is a federal program, each state designs its own approach. In South Dakota, adults must work 30 hours per week if their children are age 6 or older, while those with children younger than age 6 must work at least 20 hours per week. There is a 60-month lifetime limit for adults.

The current bill, whose prime sponsor is Senator Reynold Nesiba, a Sioux Falls Democrat, now goes to the full Senate for consideration as early as Wednesday afternoon. Nesiba said repealing the ban fits with Governor Kristi Noem’s anti-methamphetamine “We’re on it” campaign.

All but one of the bill’s co-sponsors are Democrats. Six of the committee’s seven senators and the governor are Republicans. Yet the sides found the deal too good to disagree. Several of the governor’s lawyers watched from the audience as the senators considered the bill. No one testified as an opponent.

“I have to tell you, I assumed that I was a ‘no’ on this when I first saw it,” Senator Lee Schoenbeck, a Watertown Republican, said. “And I find being open-minded causes headaches. But I did find a certain amount of comfort in this was (President) Bill Clinton’s bill we’re opposing,” Schoenbeck continued, drawing laughs.

He next remarked he was sure Tom Daschle of South Dakota had voted for it as the U.S. Senate Democratic leader at the time. Schoenbeck, a lawyer and a former Day County state’s attorney, said he didn’t subscribe to the belief that somebody was being punished for a disease. He said drug felonies are crimes and permanently taking away TANF benefits seemed right in the 1990s.

On the other hand, Schoenbeck said he now sees dollars that potentially could be saved and called Nesiba’s legislation “a money-maker” for state government.

“Because every person we keep out of the system, or help get out of the system for one or two months, we’re going to make more money back every single year by passing this, than we do with it in place, and that’s why I’m supporting it,” Schoenbeck said.

Senator Rocky Blare, an Ideal Republican, called for the committee’s endorsement for a more straight-forward reason at a time when state government is shorter than normal on tax revenue.

“We can’t fund everything. but we want to efficiently use that money to foster success. I think this is the most efficient use of money that I’ve seen we’ve used to foster success this year,” Blare said.

Cathy Brechtelsbauer of Sioux Falls is a leader of the South Dakota chapter of Bread for the World, a group that works against hunger. Brechtelsbauer told senators that, according to the state department, the average time a family received TANF benefits last year was five months and an average of nine families per month would have gotten about $65 more.

The five months was shorter than if a child went to a foster household, she said.

“There’s chaos enough in families that are really poor. And this chaos affects children — we know — a lifetime. It can even affect their brains and their ability to learn,” Brechtelsbauer said. She added that $65 a month could help solve a crisis, or avoid a crisis, or pay for something simple such as school pictures that otherwise couldn’t be afforded but also couldn’t be easily explained away.

“We’re not talking about a lot of families. It may not seem like a lot, but to those families, when you can prevent some kind of, a little bit of, the chaos in their lives for those children, you can be making a difference,” she said.

Other supporters included people representing community behavioral-health providers, the Presentation Sisters of Aberdeen and criminal-defense lawyers.

Also asking for the committee’s support was a Watertown woman who was released from the state prison at Pierre in December 2018 after serving a two-year sentence for a drug conviction.

“You get released from prison and you don’t really have any support. You don’t have somewhere you can go and say, ‘Look, I need this, this and this.’ You know, you just don’t have those options,” Jessica Cooper said.

Said Nesiba: “This costs nothing, virtually nothing, to South Dakota taxpayers.”

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