Before a packed committee room Monday, legislators initially accepted Gov. Butch Otter’s removal of the asset test from eligibility requirements for food stamps.
The asset test, which requires the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare to verify assets of individuals who apply for food stamps, was suspended by Otter as of May 1, 2009, for the period of one year. The test excludes those with more than $2,000 in physical assets, such as an RV, boat, ATV, or tractor, from receiving food stamp assistance. The change was made by the governor to address the failing economy and provided aid to those with assets who may have lost their job and were unable to sell those them.
According to Rosie Andueza, program manager for the department, the suspension of the test allowed more families to receive help and removed an unnecessary barrier for those who need food assistance. Andueza reported to the subcommittee that the proposal had no new budgetary impact on the general fund. The temporary program did require $231,000 in funding in fiscal year 2010 to provide 10 temporary full-time positions to aid the administration process. Those jobs will be eliminated as of April 30, 2010.
Several individuals came before the committee to testify of the necessity of passage for the provision. Renee Watson, a recent graduate of Boise State, said she worked hard in school to obtain her teaching degree, but because she graduated in the middle of the school year, she was unable to find steady employment. She said food stamps helped her feel secure while being able to use other money she earned to build a savings, which she plans to use as a reserve fund for emergency expenses.
Cassandra Schiffler, a graduate of the College of Idaho in Caldwell, testified she too had worked hard during her schooling but complained she and classmates had graduated “into an economy that cannot sustain us.” Schiffler, valedictorian of her class at Twin Falls High School, said she isn’t a scam artist looking to get a free ride, but rather that, like Watson, a person using food stamps is helping her building a savings.
Karen Vauk, with the Idaho Food Bank (IFB), testified of the growing need for help in the state. In May 2009, IFB projected it would provided approximately 1 million pounds of food during the next year to Idaho families, but has reached that amount three and a half months early. She said toward the end of 2009, use of the holiday meat program, designed to help families have food on the table for holiday dinners, increased 75 percent though it was only expected to jump 30 compared to the previous year. IFB provided holiday meat to over 30,000 families.
Before coming to a final vote, some legislators on the committee sought to redefine the use of the program. Rep. Steve Thayn, R-Emmett, expressed concerns over the direction of the country and the role this move would play in moving toward a government supported lifestyle. Thayn said he wanted people to focus on finding a way to produce goods and services and called the current movement toward constant government assistance unsustainable.
Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, also expressed displeasure with the rule and individuals’ application of it. “This program is not for filling a savings account,” said Luker.
Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur D’Alene, expressed support for the program. “I want to be part of the body that still has compassion for those in need,” said Sayler.
Thayn and Luker reluctantly joined with Sayler and the rest of the subcommittee in unanimously passing the motion to introduce the legislation before the full House Health and Welfare Committee. Had it been voted down, the program would have ended upon the adjournment of the Idaho Legislature, which many expect to come late March or April.