Bill would require community service work for public benefits
by Tim Lockette
Jan 22, 2014 | 4156 views |  0 comments | 37 37 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Sen. Bryan Taylor
Sen. Bryan Taylor
MONTGOMERY — An Alabama Senate committee put a temporary hold Wednesday on a bill that would require people who receive public assistance to do 20 hours of community service work per week.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Bryan Taylor, R-Prattville, would apply to anyone who's not disabled, is unemployed and is receiving unemployment benefits, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or other government benefits.

Taylor said the bill was inspired by some things he saw on a drive around downtown Montgomery.

"I saw a lot of graffiti everywhere, and I saw a lot of people who were just sitting on the porch," he said. "And I thought, folks like that, they're on public assistance, and they should be doing something."

Taylor's bill would require the Alabama Department of Labor to set up a community service program that would put recipients of government benefits in contact with nonprofits that are approved to use their labor. Recipients would work 20 hours per week for the nonprofit, and the non-profit would certify that they performed the work.

Failure to do that community service work would lead to a loss of benefits for 90 days on the first instance, six months for the second instance and one year for a third instance.

A fiscal note attached to the bill states that administration of the program would come at a cost to the state, but that the cost could be offset by money saved on benefits for people who lose their benefits.

Committee member Sen. Linda Coleman, D-Birmingham, described the bill as "worthy," but expressed skepticism that the state could run the program without an added cost. She noted that a number of state jobs have been cut in recent years.

"We're adding a huge responsibility on a short, streamlined staff," she said.

Carol Gundlach, a policy analyst for the anti-poverty group Alabama Arise, said the bill as now worded could create a huge pool of community service workers — possibly more than the state's nonprofits would really want or need. The bill doesn't require any nonprofit to accept new volunteers.

"The bill doesn't really explain what would happen if there aren't enough placements," she said.

Gundlach said that for people on unemployment, the bill could interfere with job-hunting.

Taylor said he hoped the bill, if passed, would inspire the creation of new nonprofits designed to make use of the community service workers the bill would create.

Somebody could set up a group “called Clean Up Our Community, and that could be the sole purpose of the organization," he said.

Taylor said the bill is still broadly-worded and could stand some refining. He said he was open to lowering the number of required service hours or creating an exception for people on unemployment who are actively seeking work. Committee members voted to table the bill and bring it back at a later date, with possible changes.

A collection of other public-benefits related bills moved more quickly through Senate committees Wednesday morning. Among other bills, committees approved a measure that would ban recipients of public assistance from using their government-issued debit cards to gamble or buy alcohol and a bill that would require people to show evidence of an active job search while they receive benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

Gundlach said the job-search bill could create problems for both businesses and the unemployed in some of the state's poorest rural areas, where employers are few.

"They're going to drive the owners of the local grocery store crazy," she said.

Bills approved in committee would still require a vote in the House or Senate in order to pass.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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