Bills that would expand the state food stamp program's work requirement, require recipients to cooperate in child-support collection efforts and bar them from using their benefits to buy certain kinds of junk food cleared a House committee on Tuesday.
House Bill 1775, sponsored by Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville, would make an education and training program mandatory for about 50,000 food stamp recipients: those age 50-60 and those who have dependent children who are all at least 6 years old.
Those recipients are now exempt from the program's requirement to work at least 80 hours a month on work or other approved activities or participate in the education and training program.
House Bill 1731, sponsored by Rep. Grant Hodges, R-Rogers, would disqualify from the program parents who refuse to cooperate with the state in establishing paternity of a child and seeking a court order for child support.
Parents who pay child support would also have to stay up to date on their payments.
House Bill 1743, also sponsored by Bentley, would bar participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as the food stamp program is formally known, from using their benefits to buy candy, soft drinks, energy drinks or dietary supplements.
Proponents of HB1775 and HB1731 told the House Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor that those bills would help move food stamp recipients out of poverty, while HB1743's supporters said it would make them healthier and reduce the number of Arkansans who are considered obese or overweight.
Tomiko Townley, advocacy director for the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, spoke against all three bills.
She said HB1775 and HB1731 would cause families to lose food stamp benefits, while HB1743 would pose challenges for the recipients as well as grocery stores.
"Obesity rates in the state are a problem, but not a SNAP participant problem," she said.
The food stamp program was serving 363,631 Arkansans as of December, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program.
Arkansas reinstituted the work requirement for non-disabled food stamp recipients age 19-49 with no dependent children in 2016, after the state's unemployment rate fell by enough that it no longer qualified for an exemption.
Since then, the number of recipients on the program who are subject to the requirement has fallen from about 20,000 to about 4,000, said Mary Franklin, director of the state Department of Human Services' Division of County Operations.
An October 2017 report by the U.S. Agriculture Department's Food and Nutrition Service listed eight states as having child support cooperation requirements for custodial or noncustodial parents or both. Two of those states -- Maine and Mississippi -- also required noncustodial parents to stay up to date on their payments.
Officials with Arkansas' Office of Child Support Enforcement said installing a computer system to implement HB1731 would cost more than $1.4 million.
They said the bill would cause the office's caseload to increase by 11,600 cases, requiring the office to increase its staff by about 40 people.
In addition to advocates for the poor, the opponents of HB1743 included Charlie Spakes, president of the Arkansas Grocers and Retail Merchants Association, and Paul Rowton, vice president of Edward's Food Giant, who said it would be difficult to identify which items qualified as candy or soft drinks.
Joe Thompson, president of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, said a group formed to implement Gov. Asa Hutchinson's anti-obesity initiative supports HB1743.
A similar bill sponsored by Bentley cleared the House in 2017, but failed to clear the Senate Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor.
HB1775 and HB1731 on Tuesday cleared the 20-member House committee in divided voice votes. HB1743 advanced in a 12-5 vote, with three members absent or not voting.
The three bills now go to the full House.
A Section on 03/20/2019
Print Headline: Bills on food stamps clear Arkansas House panel; proposal expands work requirement, bars some junk food purchases