More businesses may pull plug on welfare cash cards



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Posted on September 23, 2010 at 10:18 PM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 30 at 3:57 AM

Many casinos in the state have taken steps to cut off the flow of cash to welfare recipients. This follows a KING 5 Investigation that showed millions of tax dollars being dispensed through casino cash machines.

Now we've learned thousands more ATMs could be blocked at other businesses where welfare dollars may not belong. Bars and taverns in Washington may follow the lead of casinos, which have already started reprogramming their ATMs so they won’t dispense cash from EBT cards that are distributed to welfare recipients.

State records show the two ATMs at the Iron Horse Casino in Auburn dispensed $780 in welfare in the month of July alone.

"Whew! It's unbelievable,” said Iron Horse customer Louie Vaccaro. “We have so many problems in this state. To hear something like that is mind boggling."

"I was surprised by that,” says the casino’s owner Chris Kealy. “I did not know those cards could be used at these machines."

Kealy saw our stories last week that showed more than $2 million in welfare cash withdrawn from ATMs in and around casinos in the last year. Initially the Department of Social and Health services, DSHS, said putting a stop to those questionable withdrawals might be too difficult  or costly.

"If we find that this is a small incidence that's happening, it might not justify the expense that it would try to prevent that activity," said Deputy DSHS secretary Troy Hutson in a story we aired last week.

It turns out the fix wasn't difficult or expensive. For the Iron Horse Casino, it took about four minutes on the phone. Kealy says in minutes, and at no cost, his ATM vendor blocked EBT cards - debit-type cards which DSHS uses to distribute cash benefits to 68,000 of the state's most needy residents.
Organizations representing both tribal and non-tribal gambling establishments in Washington pledged their full support when DSHS’s secretary made an announcement two days after KING 5 Investigation aired.

“I want to shut down every ATM in gambling establishments that has EBT access, " said Susan N. Dreyfus.

Kealy and many other casino owners didn’t wait for orders from the state. They already re-programmed their ATMs. And Kealy isn’t stopping with his own casino. He's a board member of the Washington Restaurant Association, which he says is preparing to ask bars and taverns - businesses that are more alcohol than food oriented - to block EBT access to their cash machines. Kealy says that would mean another 2,000 ATMs couldn’t be accessed for welfare cash benefits.

"The taxes you are paying are supposed to help fund basic needs, human services,” Kealy says. “We're all in this together. I'm supportive of that. But I'm not supportive of those dollars being used in facilities like this.”

Gambling is one of the few restrictions on the use of welfare cash. It is illegal. Welfare cheats can still get their money at other ATMs, but casinos hope to stack the deck against them and send the message that welfare dollars aren’t welcome on gaming floors.

Related: Read the Recreational Gaming Association letter to Governor Gregoire

Related: Read the DSHS Q&A on cash benefits at gaming establishments