Proposals aimed at eliminating soda and snacks from the federal food stamp program were defeated in the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee this week, but some proposed changes to the state’s welfare program and a measure to prohibit smoking in outdoor restaurants and bars are headed to the House of Representatives for debate.
The 13-member committee voted unanimously against two bills that would have required the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to request a waiver from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. An approved federal waiver is the only mechanism the state could use to disallow the use of food stamp dollars for the purchase of soda and snack foods, the target of the bills.
Rep. Peggy Pendleton, D-Scarborough and sponsor of one of the proposals, said Tuesday at a public hearing that taxpayer dollars should not be spent to purchase unhealthful items that contribute to dental decay, diabetes and obesity. Opponents, including the advocacy group Maine Equal Justice Partners and DHHS itself, ar-gued that the proposals unfairly targeted low-income families and would increase the stigma of participating in the food stamp program. Opponents also said a broad-based nutrition education campaign would be a more effective and more equitable way to change consumer habits, and questioned whether SNAP would grant Maine’s request for a state-level waiver.
That question was answered in a notification received Tuesday afternoon from SNAP, stating that any waiver request would be denied, Pendleton said Friday. She said she was not surprised at the opposition to the bills, and that a focus on public education rather than on eliminating specific items from the food stamp program is “a good suggestion.”
The committee split along party lines on proposals to tighten up eligibility for welfare benefits such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the municipally administered General Assistance program. Majority Democrats unanimously rejected the two bills, which would have imposed a 90-day residency requirement and a 60-month lifetime cap on TANF benefits for adults, among other reforms. But minority Republicans supported an amended proposal, not yet finished, that could include a lifetime cap on benefits and provide tax incentives for employers who hire welfare recipients.
“The average duration in TANF is only 28 months,” said Sen. Peter Mills, R-Cornville, charged with drafting the amendment to LD 254. But almost 8 percent of the roughly 13,700 Mainers now receiving benefits have exceeded five years in the program, he said.
Some changes to Maine’s welfare system are “worth considering,” Mills said, but he noted that requiring a period of residency in Maine before benefits can be obtained would violate the constitutionally protected right to travel within the United States.
Committee members unanimously endorsed LD 820, which would prohibit smoking at outdoor bars and restaurants. Modeled after a city ordinance in Portland, the measure, sponsored by freshman Rep. Joan Cohen, D-Portland, is headed for debate in the House of Representatives.