GOP lawmakers push for more state control over SNAP

By Bill Tomson

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WASHINGTON, June 8, 2016 - While fraud in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is at an all-time low, Republican lawmakers complained sharply during a three-hour hearing Thursday that USDA needs to do a better job of combating it and said states should get more control over the initiative formerly known as food stamps.

“It's really about making sure SNAP is supported and feeds the hungry in the way that it should,” Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., told Agri-Pulse after the hearing. “Bad actors - we've got to do a better job figuring out how to go after them and empower the states to allow them to go after them,” he said.

Lets Talk Food

Meadows, chairman of the House Oversight subcommittee that held the hearing, maintains that USDA is stretched too thin and that states could better prosecute those who illegally buy and sell SNAP benefits, also known as trafficking.

It was a sentiment repeated often by other Republican lawmakers, one that was rejected by Kevin Concannon, USDA under secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, one of five witnesses.

Concannon stressed USDA has continuously increased its efforts to crack down on retailers who traffic SNAP benefits and reduced the practice to just 1.3 percent of all transactions, down from a high of 4 percent 20 years ago.

“While the trafficking rate is low, and 98.7 percent of the benefits are used properly, we continue to focus on this vital area because, when almost $70 billion (in FY 2015) in taxpayer-supported benefits are involved, continuous attention, energy and diligence is required,” Concannon said in his testimony.

Furthermore, he said that USDA sanctioned 2,700 retailers for SNAP abuses in 2015, a 21 percent increase from 2014.

“More than 1,900 stores were permanently disqualified for trafficking or falsifying an application, and over 700 stores were sanctioned for other violations such as the sale of ineligible items,” Concannon said. “Our strengthened vetting policies and procedures have increased our ability to prevent the authorization of firms that attempt to circumvent SNAP's business integrity rules.”

Subcommittee members like Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., were not convinced and pushed for more safeguards, such as mandatory photo identification on the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards people use to spend SNAP benefits.

Mary Mayhew, commissioner of Maine's Department of Health and Human Services, also said she believed photo IDs are useful.

“When someone's picture is on their card, it only follows that they are less likely to sell it for cash or trade it for drugs,” she said. “We have seen the results - while EBT cards still turn up in drug-related arrests too often, we don't see EBT cards with photos turning up in those raids.”

All states are able to issue voluntary photo identification on EBT cards, but Maine and Massachusetts are the only two states that do currently.

Concannon told Agri-Pulse that several states have considered photo IDs, but rejected the idea.

“It's not very effective,” Concannon said.

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Mike Carroll, secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Family Services agreed. He said Florida considered putting photos on EBT cards, but rejected the idea. SNAP traffickers, he said, would not care if there were photos on the cards.

What Carroll did want was for Florida to have the authority to shut down retailers that the state could prove were trafficking the benefits.

Only USDA has the authority to do that, he said, and states can only go after the individual card holders.

Meadows tried to get Concannon to agree to a pilot program that would give states the ability to go after retailers, but Concannon said he did not know if USDA had the authority to transfer that power.

Meanwhile, Kay Brown, director for education, workforce, and income security at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, testified about a 2014 investigation that showed that USDA needed to do a better job in following SNAP users' multiple requests for replacement EBT cards - often a sign that fraud is occurring.

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