As lawmakers look to fund an important change to the state’s food stamp program using bonus award cash handed over by the federal government, documents reveal the iffy and unpredictable nature of that revenue stream.
Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa, is pushing legislation to change Idaho’s food stamp distribution from a single day to a staggered process spread out over 10 consecutive days. To pay for the changes, Perry wants to use bonus money the feds dole out to states that are particularly efficient in signing up residents for the welfare program.
Yet, the cash doesn’t come on a regular basis, which means Perry’s changes may or may not happen in the year and nine months she seeks to make the switch to the staggered system.
The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare (DHW), which administers the food stamp program, revealed this week that in half of the last decade, Idaho has not received the bonus cash allotment from the federal government. Two of those years were even worse, with Idaho paying six-figure penalties for dismal performance.
Idaho received a total $4.8 million in bonuses back dating back to 2004. In 2004 and 2005 combined, though, the state paid more than $500,000 in penalties. The state neither received bonus money nor paid a penalty in 2007, 2008 and 2009.
DHW spokesman Tom Shanahan warned of the uncertain nature of the federal dollars. “As you can see, bonuses are not something we can always count on,” Shanahan wrote in an email to IdahoReporter.com. “Even if we improve our performance, there is no guarantee we will get future bonuses.”
The agency spent the cash on employment and training program, staff training and development and technological upgrades for Idaho’s Medicaid system. Shanahan wasn’t able to give exact dollar amounts on the spending.
Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, warned Monday against relying on the bonus cash to fund the switch. Bell, who serves as co-chair of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, warned that depending on the funds could leave the state in a tight spot fiscally speaking if the funds don’t come through.
Perry countered, telling colleagues that her bill allows the department to forego the changes if the federal money isn’t there.
Wayne Hoffman, president of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, slammed the bill for a different reason. Hoffman, a limited-government advocate, wrote in a blog post Tuesday that Perry’s bill encourages the state to sign up more people for government food stamps.
“In recent years, a good job has included signing up vast new people for food stamps,” Hoffman wrote. “So now this bill proposes a process wherein therein this is an incentive to keep adding people onto a government program.”
Several retailers, including Winco Foods in Boise, support Perry’s measure. Grocers have complained in recent years the first-of-the-month food stamp rush can overwhelm stores and staffers and frustrate shoppers.
DHW says it may need up to $630,000 to stagger distribution days.
Note: The Idaho Freedom Foundation publishes IdahoReporter.com.