A set of bills up for votes in the state Assembly on Tuesday would change the way food stamp recipients receive benefits in Wisconsin.
Opponents of the Republican proposals say they would shame those living in poverty and potentially even increase hunger in the state. The bills' authors argue they're part of an effort to crack down on waste, fraud and abuse and to protect benefits for those who truly need them.
Which programs are affected by the bills?
One proposal targets unemployment benefits. The remaining three make changes to FoodShare, the state's successor to the food stamps program.
What do the FoodShare bills do?
- A bill introduced by Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, would require a photo ID to be added to electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards for FoodShare participants. However, store clerks would not be required to look at the photo in order to approve a purchase. The federal government would have to approve the state's implementation plan in order for it to take effect.
- A bill introduced by Rep. Dave Heaton, R-Wausau, would allow three replacement EBT cards to be issued to a FoodShare participant within a year. Recipients who request a fourth card would be notified they could be investigated for fraud. A fifth request in one year would initiate a fraud investigation. A recipient making a sixth request would not receive a replacement card until he or she provided an adequate explanation for the request to the state. The bill would codify a pilot policy launched by the Department of Health Services in 2013.
- A bill introduced by Rep. André Jacque, R-De Pere, would require the state to seize any unused FoodShare benefits from an account that hasn't been accessed in six or more months. The recipient would have to request the account be reactivated or reapply for the program in order to access the benefits again. Under the bill, all benefits more than a year old would also be seized, even if the account is in active use.
What about the unemployment bill?
Under the bill, introduced by Rep. Samantha Kerkman, R-Salem, anyone who hides information in order to qualify for unemployment benefits would be barred from receiving them for seven years. The same penalty would apply to anyone who impersonates someone else to receive benefits twice.
What do supporters say?
In a public hearing for his photo ID bill, Kremer said his proposal is about helping the poor.
"It is not about discriminating and taking away anyone's benefits," Kremer said. "I don't care if it's a dime or it's a million dollars — we are responsible for the money that our taxpayers give us to dole out and use in this state."
Heaton told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last week his proposal targeting multiple requests for replacement cards strikes a balance between helping those who are needy and protecting tax dollars.
Heaton and Jacques have both cited investigative reports on food stamp fraud as an impetus for their bills.
Kerkman said her bill creates a common-sense "two strikes" rule.
"An individual who has twice and intentionally attempted to receive unemployment benefits they have not earned is stealing from both the Wisconsin workers who have earned them and the employers who are taxed to pay them," Kerkman said of her unemployment benefits bill. "We should not give them the opportunity to defraud us yet a third time."
What do opponents say?
Matt Stienstra, advocacy campaign manager for the Milwaukee-based Hunger Task Force, said the photo ID bill has the potential to damage FoodShare, "one of the most important, successful tools we have for fighting hunger."
"It would undermine the very purpose of FoodShare by making it more difficult for people to get the help they need to feed their families," said Peter Bakken, coordinator for public policy for the Wisconsin Council of Churches.
Legal Action of Wisconsin told the Associated Press it worries Kerkman's proposal could be troublesome for people who make honest mistakes in the complicated application process for unemployment benefits.
Who is lobbying for the bills?
No groups are registered in favor of the three bills related to FoodShare. Registered in favor of the unemployment benefits bill are the National Federation of Independent Businesses, the Wisconsin Hotel and Lodging Association, Wisconsin Independent Businesses, Inc. and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce.
Who is lobbying against the bills?
- Legal Action of Wisconsin is registered against the unemployment bill.
- Hunger Task Force, Legal Action of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin chapter of the National Association of Social Workers and the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families are registered against the bill targeting unused FoodShare benefits.
- Hunger Task Force and Legal Action of Wisconsin are registered against the FoodShare replacement cards bill.
- Registered against the photo ID bill are Disability Rights Wisconsin, Feeding Wisconsin, Hunger Task Force, Legal Action of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, the State Bar of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault, the Wisconsin Coalition of Independent Living Centers, the Wisconsin Community Action Program Association, the Wisconsin Council of Churches and the Wisconsin Primary Health Care Association.