PHOENIX — State lawmakers voted Thursday to make the ability of nearly 80,000 people to continue to get food stamps subject to a political process.
Federal law contains a requirement for able-bodied individuals to work to qualify for more than three months’ worth of food assistance, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. But the law also says waivers are available for areas with unemployment higher than 10 percent or where there are insufficient jobs.
That process now is pretty much automatic, with the Department of Economic Security making routine waiver requests to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program.
At the moment, those waivers extend to 14 of the state’s 15 counties based on unemployment levels. Maricopa County is not included, though there is a waiver for Apache Junction, which exists in both Maricopa and Pinal counties. And 16 reservations have their own separate waiver.
SB 1161 would say that future waivers can be sought only if first approved by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, a panel of lawmakers with Republicans in the majority. And then any waiver request would have to get the blessing of the governor.
No approval? No waiver.
Rep. Justin Olson, R-Mesa, said the additional hurdle is justified, even though SNAP benefits are paid for entirely from federal dollars. “It just adds a level of transparency,” said Olson, a sponsor of the bill.
But Rep. Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, said this is little more than politics.
“The reality is we are up against an ideology here,” she said, the same ideology that blocked Arizona from restoring the KidsCare program to provide health care, at federal expense, to the children of the working poor. At least some of the opposition from Republican lawmakers was based on the concern that such programs create dependency on the government.
“I don’t think we should be succumbing to an ideology that’s concerned about creating dependency when we’re talking about people who are hungry,” Rios said.
The work requirement exists only for able-bodied adults without dependent children.
“There’s no need to politicize a process that’s already working,” Rios said. “There’s no good reason to add a layer of bureaucracy to a process that’s already working unless possibly the intent is to delay or deny SNAP benefits coming to Arizona.”
Rep. Ken Clark, D-Phoenix, said the hurdle of getting the waiver is even greater than just getting the approval of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee and the governor.
He noted a decision to call a committee meeting is solely the decision of who chairs the panel. But Clark noted there is no requirement for that person to actually schedule a meeting to consider a request.
“There is absolutely zero good reason to have a gatekeeper who can hold up everything and keep people hungry,” he said.
Olson defended the proposal.
He said the work requirement was something signed into law by President Bill Clinton, a Democrat.
“Work is good for individuals, work is good for families,” Olson said. “It is a benefit to an individual to get that experience, to begin to gain experience that can help them to climb the economic ladder.”
And Olson said he sees nothing wrong with the additional hurdles.
“The elected representatives of the people will make that decision to request this waiver,” he said. “And they can be held accountable if they make a decision that is inappropriate.”
If SB 1161 becomes law, close to 80,000 people could be affected depending on the action or inaction of the legislative committee and the governor. That’s the number DES reported in January of able-bodied adults receiving food stamps.
The measure also puts new restrictions on the related cash-assistance program that provides money to those who meet certain income requirements.
Existing law already precludes the use of the electronic benefit cards at liquor stores, gaming facilities and adult-oriented entertainment establishments. SB 1161 adds new restrictions ranging from theme parks and movie theaters to tattoo parlors, body-piercing studios and cruise ships.