HELENA — Republican lawmakers Sen. Fred Thomas and Rep. Art Wittich proposed legislation Monday that they said would rein in abuse of public assistance programs.
Thomas introduced Senate Bill 206 in the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Safety Committee. It would require the state to seek federal permission to limit the foods that can be purchased under the supplemental nutrition assistance program.
Thomas said he drafted the bill after hearing from store cashiers that many food stamps are being used toward soda pop, energy drinks, frozen pizza and other items not generally considered nutritious.
“From grocery stores it’s less of an issue than at convenience stores,” Thomas said.
The bill, however, goes beyond those items and would prohibit the use of food stamps for things on a banned list for the special supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children. Prohibited items would include jelly, honey, soup mixes, canned green or yellow beans, bulk oatmeal, nuts, frozen fruit and juice blends.
Thomas said he’s open to amending the proposal but maintains the importance of focusing the program to limit abuse. He also said the food stamp program should be curtailed to cover only the neediest people.
Wittich introduced House Bill 442, which would restrict the Children’s Health Insurance Program to kids whose family resources total less than $20,000.
As drafted, however, the program would end entirely, kicking tens of thousands of children off the coverage rolls.
The proposal would violate a federal law that disqualifies any state that enacts a resource test, Geralyn Driscoll, staff attorney for the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, said. Additionally, Montana law states that if federal funding ends, the program itself would end, Driscoll said.
Wittich said after the hearing that he was surprised by the effect the bill would have on CHIP. He said he and a staffer drafted the bill on the assumption that the law banning resource tests would expire in 2019, so a bill taking effect after that as his does would be permissible, which Driscoll explained wasn’t the case.
Democrat Rep. Jenny Eck of Helena said the bill targets children and asked Wittich to explain his philosophical reasoning behind it.
“This is a policy matter, OK?” Wittich said, later adding that his intention was to concentrate public assistance on people who have absolutely no resources to pay for health care.
He explained one instance in which a professional in Bozeman appeared to be shifting income to illegally qualify the family for federal assistance.
“They were fairly well off and had a very nice house, nicer than mine, and I have a nice house,” Wittich said. “And they were able to qualify for Children’s Health Insurance (Program).”
Currently, 28,500 kids receive health insurance through CHIP, Driscoll said. The Governor’s Office of Budget and Program Planning, which calculates the cost of every legislative proposal, assumed that approximately the same amount would be enrolled in the program in 2019.
The lawmakers introduced the bills independently.
No supporters spoke for either bill.