Fired store clerk urges lawmakers to ban buying booze, butts with EBT cards

CONCORD – The Peterborough store clerk fired because she refused to sell cigarettes to an EBT card user stole the show at a public hearing last week on legislation to ban such purchases of alcohol and tobacco with the government-assistance cards.

Jackie Whiton had been a store clerk for six years at The Big Apple but was fired in June 2012, the day after she wouldn’t make the EBT sale for a pack of cigarettes. The incident drew national press coverage, giving Whiton instant recognition whenever she walked into a New Hampshire market – but also some anonymous threats of violence. The latter didn’t last.

“When they found out my husband was a federal firearms instructor and the top trap shooter in the state that year, they backed off,” Whiton said with a chuckle.

More than 1,300 people have signed petitions in support of her actions.

“Maybe I was wrong, but I don’t feel I was,” Whiton said. “I know elderly people can’t afford their medications, can’t heat their homes, can’t put food on the table. If you could see the young slugs who walk around with these cash cards, it makes no sense to me.”

The Electronic Benefit Transfer, or EBT, system distributes various benefits, which automatically transfer to accounts that have been set up. These cards replaced checks issued by the state and federal government that could be cashed and spent on anything.

More than 14,000 households receive monthly benefits from the state through EBT, compared to more than 56,000 households that receive federal food-stamp assistance, which is restricted by federal law from being used on items such as cigarettes.

A federal law passed in 2010 urged states to prevent anyone from using EBT cards in liquor stores, casinos and adult entertainment sites such as strip clubs.

The current state budget adopted last spring carried out that ban and extended it to welfare and monthly check for poor seniors and the disabled.

State Rep. Frank Sapareto, R-Derry, said his bill, HB 1213, strikes a nerve with voters who resent those on welfare and other public assistance using benefits on their bad habits.

“We are representing our constituents, and they want these dollars to go to what they were intended, and those are for the costs of living, food and clothing,” Sapareto said. “These are being spent on things that they weren’t intended to, and taxpayers are fed up about it.”

Rep. Peter Leishman, D-Peterborough, said he’s open to adding other purchases to the EBT ban, as some members on the House Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee suggested.

“We believe this is a good start, but adding to it might be even better,” Leishman said.

But Rep. Timothy Horgan, D-Durham, said this was abject discrimination, since these clients should be able to use cash benefits as they see fit.

“They are free to make their own choices about spending their cash, just like everyone else,” Horgan said.

Opponents seized on a provision that would require store clerks to not permit purchases with cash that comes out of ATM machines by EBT card users.

Sarah Mattson, staff lawyer for New Hampshire Legal Assistance, said that’s unenforceable.

Mattson said the average benefit for a family of three is $675 a month and is used to pay rent – and often doesn’t go far enough.

“People receiving these benefits routinely have trouble getting by,” Mattson said.

Mary Lou Beaver, of Every Child Matters, said clerks can’t know where the cash comes from, since many people getting state welfare or old age or state disability benefits report having other sources of income.

John Dumais, president of the New Hampshire Grocers Association, said his members embrace the thought behind the bill but cited some problems working with it.

“There are some real concerns about how you implement this going forward,” Dumais said.

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Landrigan on Twitter (@Klandrigan).