June 25, 2018
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Lawmakers split on bill to ban Mainers from buying junk food with food stamps

By Matthew Stone, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine House and Senate were at odds Wednesday over a bill aimed at barring food stamp recipients from spending their state-issued benefits on soft drinks and certain snack foods.

The Democratically controlled Senate on Wednesday morning reversed itself from a Tuesday vote and opted to turn the legislation into a call for a state working group that would be charged with devising strategies for reducing food insecurity and promoting healthy eating habits among food stamp recipients.

Later Wednesday, the Democratically controlled House rejected the work group proposal in an 80-67 vote in favor of the original bill. The bill will next head back to the Senate, where senators could choose to agree with their House colleagues or stick to their earlier vote.

“Prohibiting people, if it were legal, from selecting less healthy foods is less productive than teaching people to make healthier choices,” said Sen. Christopher Johnson, D-Somerville.

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 legislation was among a number of bills proposed by Gov. Paul LePage this legislative session that targeted the state’s welfare programs. In the Legislature, it was sponsored by Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta, the assistant Senate Republican leader, and co-sponsored by five Democrats and four Republicans. One Democratic co-sponsor, Sen. David Dutremble of Biddeford, voted against the bill during the Senate vote.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m a character in ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ We are debating whether people can use public funds to buy potato chips and Twinkies,” said Katz. “This bill was introduced on a bipartisan basis. How it has turned into a partisan issue is beyond me.”

Wednesday’s Senate vote against the legislation and in favor of the state work group on healthy eating came a day after the Senate voted 19-16 against the work group proposal.

Even if the bill dies, the LePage administration could still choose on its own to apply to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program waiver that would let the state make junk food off limits to food stamp recipients. The waiver application doesn’t require legislative approval.

The state’s chances of securing the waiver, however, aren’t particularly promising. The U.S. Department of Agriculture 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.

Democratic opponents cited that low likelihood of success in pushing their work group solution Wednesday. That work group would be charged with addressing food insecurity in the state, promoting nutritious eating habits among food stamp recipients and expanding food stamp recipients’ access to fresh fruits and vegetables through farmers markets.

Such a solution would avoid stigmatizing the state’s poor residents, said Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston.

“Treating people who are poor differently, I think, undermines their humanity and undermines our humanity for treating them that way,” she said.

“I don’t think it’s a bad idea to talk about people eating healthy,” said Sen. Troy Jackson of Allagash, the assistant Democratic Senate leader. “I do think that a mother going into a place with a young child, every once in a while it’s OK for them to get a candy bar or something like that.”

LePage has vetoed a number of bills that propose working groups, arguing that they impose unfunded legislative mandates on state departments overseen by the executive branch.

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