BOISE -- A debate over food stamps and the way they're handed out to around 230,000 Idahoans is headed to the Senate floor. The Senate's Health and Welfare Committee took up a bill Monday that would stagger distribution and has decided to send it forward. A similar bill failed to get out of the same committee last year.
Since 2009, food stamp benefits have been issued to all beneficiaries on the first of the month. This bill would stagger the money over ten days. Recipients would still get their entire month's money at once, but on a date of the month determined by birthdate. The bill would also reissue food stamp cards to include the number and add the beneficiary's name.
On Tuesday afternoon, the committee spent two hours listening to testimony and discussing the bill before passing it on for a full floor vote, 6-3. Of those who testified, only one person came forward opposing the bill.
Representative Christy Perry (R-Nampa) introduced the bill a couple weeks ago. She says food stamp fraud and long grocery lines prompted her interest in this type of legislation.
"Besides the long lines in grocery stores, which are very burdensome and difficult for the elderly and disabled, and an unnecessary and unappreciated nuisance for many others, the current issuance system causes difficulties for the distribution systems of the grocery stores and the food producers as well," Perry explained to the committee.
A Canyon County farmer who sells to Albertson's, Paul's, Winco and Walmart told the committee he can't keep up with a surge at the beginning of the month. He says he has had to turn down orders because he couldn't turn them around fast enough and the stores bought from out of state farmers to meet first-of-the-month demand.
"As all the people on food stamps get their cards on the first of the month, we're not able to supply our suppliers because we're not geared up to harvest that much of our crop in that first four days," Matt Wissel, farmer, said.
Many members of the Northwest Grocery Association, including Winco, support a change to staggered issuance. They say while customers may still come on the day they receive benefits, spreading out those days will help the grocery stores and customers.
"A person who receives their benefits on the 5th still has to stretch that out for a month. Correct. But when they go on the 5th, the shelves will be restocked," Dr. Gloria Totoricagüena, Northwest Grocery Association, said. "Not all tomatoes become ripe because it's the first on a calendar. Not all lettuce is ready... It's a matter of staggering it out. It just makes sense. It's logical."
Some other organizations, including the Idaho Interfaith Roundtable Against Hunger, supported the measure Tuesday. That group sent a representative who brought a petition with hundreds of signatures. The AARP is also in favor.
"In our opinion, the current single day issuance approach fosters an approach which is detrimental to older Idahoans. Essential perishable products like fresh produce, milk, and eggs sell out quickly, and the long lines create food access barriers," Lynn Young, AARP Idaho, said.
The cost to make the switch has been one of the most questioned parts of the proposed legislation. According to the bill's text, the initial price tag to switch from one day per month to ten days per month is $683,200, and $231,600 a year after that (split between state and federal funds).
"There's a lot that goes into this when you're looking at the cost. And what we've done, because we have been working on this for several years, is try to bring this down to the lowest cost possible, yet make it effective, make it manageable, so that there's no confusion," Dept. of Welfare Administrator Russ Barron said. "The more confusion is not just a problem for the department, it's a problem for participants, it's a problem for retailers. We've been there. We know that happens."
Possible confusion is another criticism, and a cost built into the bill. The department says it would need more employees to help answer calls and questions from participants who need to know when they'll get money. Educational materials, such as fliers, explaining the change are also a part of the initial cost.
Paul's Market spoke out against the bill, saying it's a change that doesn't need to happen. The store says it can handle the extra customers on the first of the month and likes the boost.
"There are only 12 first days of the month in a year. So I'm able to handle that extra business. I relish it. I run hotter ads. I bring in more product. If I run out of product, I substitute. I do everything I can because the grocery business is predicated on volume," Stan Zatica, Paul's Market, said. "This is a large coup for the large corporate stores that are open 24 hours, have a huge warehouse east of here, and they're complaining about too much business. As an independent, I'll take all the business you'll give me."
Senators Guthrie, Lodge and Schmidt voted against sending the bill on. The other six senators voted in favor of sending the bill with a do-pass recommendation, and the bill now heads to the full Senate floor for a vote.