State may pursue food stamp ban on junk food even if bill dies in Legislature

The State House in Augusta.
The State House in Augusta. Buy Photo
Posted May 10, 2013, at 5:26 p.m.
Last modified May 10, 2013, at 10:08 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage’s administration can move ahead with its efforts to keep food stamp recipients from using their benefits on soft drinks and junk food even if a bill pending before the Legislature fails.

The bill, LD 1411, would require the state Department of Health and Human Services to apply for a waiver from the federal government that would allow the state to bar food stamp recipients from using their benefits to purchase soft drinks and snack foods that are subject to the state sales tax.

The bill was rejected along party lines Thursday in the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, with Democrats opposing the measure and Republicans supporting it.

However, the Department of Health and Human Services doesn’t need legislative approval to move ahead with a waiver application, DHHS spokesman John Martins confirmed Friday.

Martins said the department proposed the bill, an initiative of LePage’s, rather than simply apply for the waiver because it marked a “significant policy change.”

“It does not align with federal law,” Martins said. “Because of the fact that there was a level of concern from both sides of the aisle, it was appropriate to bring this forward for consideration.”

LePage and Republican legislators reacted angrily Friday to the committee vote against the bill.

“I am shaking my head over this disappointing vote,” Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta, the assistant Senate Republican leader, said in a statement. “This is an idea that has strong bipartisan support, because it’s a common-sense proposition. Taxpayer-funded food stamps should not be used for junk food.”

Katz said he’s still hopeful the bill, which is co-sponsored by five Democrats and four Republicans, will ultimately pass the Legislature.

“It would certainly help with the waiver request to have the request initiated by the full Legislature as opposed to just the department,” he said. “It would have more force if it came from a legislative resolve.”

Martins said the department also hopes the bill passes.

“If it doesn’t then, we’ll have to look at the options that exist at that particular point in time,” he said.

LePage has made the state’s welfare programs a consistent policy target during his more than two years in office. His administration has proposed another bill that was also defeated in committee Thursday. It would make drug felons ineligible for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, benefit program.

“Democrats once again have demonstrated an extreme agenda by obstructing any and all common-sense welfare reforms,” LePage said Friday in a statement.

Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, who is chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee, said she opposed the bill because no state has been granted the waiver LePage proposes to pursue. In addition, she said, it’s demeaning to food stamp recipients to bar them from purchasing certain food items.

“I would not want my name attached to a bill that treated human beings like they don’t have any authority over themselves,” she said.

If Maine ultimately pursues the waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, its chances of securing one aren’t promising. The USDA in 2011 rejected a similar waiver request from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, saying the waiver program would have been “too large and complex” to implement and evaluate, the New York Times reported.

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