Members of the House Health and Welfare Committee put on a fiery display for the public Friday when the panel held votes on acceptance of subcommittee votes. The process, which is typically a mundane procedure, ignited emotional reactions from several lawmakers, including Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, and Rep. Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls. Both left the room abruptly in the middle of the hearing.
In what is typically a process without much objection, the panel considered the acceptance of rules changes for several state departments, which had been debated by the subcommittees. One of the rules from the McGeachin subcommittee was the removal of the asset test for the food stamp program.
The asset test is one of two hurdles applicants must pass before being approved for food assistance and it measures how much an applicant owns in terms of possessions. Before being suspended by Gov. Butch Otter in May of 2009, applicants who owned large assets, such as RVs, boats, or ATVs could be turned down as a result of ownership of those items. Otter removed the test due to the struggling economy, which made it difficult for families with those assets to sell them for cash.
Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, sat on the McGeachin subcommittee that approved the removal of the test. At the time, Luker said he reluctantly approved of the removal because the program is scheduled to end in May. At the hearing, Luker took a different position, saying that the committee should accept every rule from the subcommittee except the removal of the asset test. Luker that the rule be brought before the full committee for further debate and consideration.
That’s when things got dicey.
Wood expressed his dissatisfaction with the motion because of Luker’s vote against a proposal that would have forced higher-income parents to pay more into the Katie Beckett program. The program is specifically designed to allow children with severe disabilities to remain with their families and receive therapy and other necessary medical services to help avoid institutionalization. The plan, developed by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, could save nearly $200,000 for Medicaid.
Wood, a staunch advocate of the changes to the Katie Beckett program, said he felt some legislators in the room need to reexamine their priorities. He added that it was misguided for legislators to vote against the $200,000 in savings of the changes to the Beckett program and then push to examine the asset test, which, according to Wood, only costs $40,000 a year to administer.
“I can no longer deal with the hypocrisy,” said Wood, before quickly shutting off his microphone and leaving the room mid-hearing.
McGeachin, who also supported the changes to the program, was left speechless.
“I just don’t know what to say,” said McGeachin before joining Wood in leaving the committee room.
Chairman Sharon Block, R-Twin Falls, already flustered from the earlier events in the meeting, adjourned the session to allow lawmakers time to cool off and reconsider the legislation before them.
In an interview with IdahoReporter.com, Rep. Steve Thayn, R-Emmett, said the issue isn’t necessarily about monetary savings, it’s about dependency on government. He added that government officials must be wary of any legislation or rule changes that make it easier for citizens to receive entitlements.
“Do we want people to become dependent on a government program?” asked Thayn. “That’s really the policy issue he (Luker) is trying to bring up, and I think it got lost in the emotion of the day.”
Thayn, who sits on the McGeachin subcommittee, voted along with Luker to pass the removal of the asset test over his own objections.
The committee will pick up the issues again on Tuesday morning in the lower east wing of the Statehouse.