A bill to require the Employment Development Department (EDD) to check benefit applications against prisoner incarceration records to reduce unemployment benefit fraud was passed unanimously in the Senate Public Safety Committee on Tuesday.
Assembly Bill 110, authored by Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach), would cross-check all EDD benefit application recipients with California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) prison records. Specifically, the CDCR would provide the names, known aliases, birth dates, booking dates, expected release dates, and social security numbers of all prisoners to the EDD to check, with the county jail systems also providing the same of all prisoners currently serving a sentence. Names and SS numbers would be given to the EDD every month under the bill, as well as whenever the EDD asks.
A revision in mid-June expanded the parameters of prisoner information to check by the EDD after some pressure from lawmakers to get a more accurate list. Automation in favor of human record checking was also added in, with the EDD needing to have a system in place that allows for electronic monitoring of CDCR inmate data to prevent further fraudulent claims in place by September 2023.
Assemblywoman Petrie-Norris wrote AB 110 due to astounding EDD fraud uncovered during the COVID-19 pandemic. 35,000 fraudulent Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) claims were filed on behalf of prisoners alone last year. According to the state auditor’s office, out of the $11.4 billion to $31 billion lost by the EDD last year in fraudulent claims, the EDD paid $810 million in benefits to those associated with incarcerated individuals. Petrie-Norris also wants California to join most states, who already have similar cross-checking laws in place. If passed, California would be the 36th state to have such a system in place.
“We have a duty to our taxpayers to ensure that their money is being used responsibly,” said Assemblywoman Petrie-Norris in a statement on Tuesday. “Due to a loophole in the current system, hundreds of millions of dollars were lost. AB 110 will close a critical gap so that unemployment funds go to those who desperately need them, not to fraudsters trying to make an extra buck.”
Unanimous approval, recall election implications
AB 110 has received unanimous approval since being proposed in December. In early June, AB 110 even passed unanimously in the usually divided Assembly 77-0. In addition to Republicans, Democrats, and Independents alike showing support, groups and organizations ranging in sectors from business to law enforcement to environmental have said that they back EDD crosschecking reform.
“When the criminals are running out of places to put their money and hard-working Americans can’t pay their bills because their unemployment benefits have been frozen, you have a major problem,” said Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer on Tuesday. “This isn’t just an Orange County problem. It isn’t just a California problem. This is a breakdown of catastrophic proportions that has failed the American taxpayer – and we are grateful Assemblymember Petrie-Norris is leading the charge in crafting thoughtful legislation like AB 110 to address these serious loopholes and prevent the continued theft of taxpayer dollars.”
Others noted possible political implications.
“The EDD fraud cases have been hanging over Governor [Gavin] Newsom’s head since they were first reported on,” added Ronald Flanagan, a former fraud investigator for a major financial institution in California, in a Globe interview on Wednesday. “Besides tracking down who did it, there’s not a lot of direct recourse for him to do without making him lose face since the buck stops with him.
“So [AB 110], whether it was intentional or not, would lift some of that off him. Now it doesn’t look like Newsom desperately fixing his own mistakes, but the legislature fixing an inherent problem in the EDD. Newsom tries to spearhead it and Republicans add it to more faults of his when discussing it. But through a bill, Republicans have no choice but to go with it since it is something they very much want, and is something still positive to Newsom because he signs it into law.
“It really is a good bill that stops a big problem, but it also washes the Governor’s hands somewhat of the EDD issue, because he let the legislature do their thing, avoided Republican grilling, and still benefits from signing it. Saying ‘I signed a bipartisan bill’ neutralizes a lot of those EDD fraud accusations at him in the upcoming recall. Not all, but a lot.”
AB 110 is expected to be heard and passed in other Senate committees soon.
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