Louisiana Walmart workers plan demonstrations at Governor’s Mansion, gubernatorial debate _lowres

Advocate Photo by MARK BALLARD -- Wal-Mart workers on a hunger strike protest Gov. Bobby Jindal's recent order to start requiring adult work a minimum number hours in order to receive food stamps. They gathered outside the Governor's Mansion on Monday.

Louisiana leaders are considering new work requirements for food stamps that would force unemployed, able-bodied adults without kids to seek workforce training or lose their benefits after three months.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who took office Jan. 11, is drafting an executive order that would outline new policies, and state lawmakers are considering several bills this session that could put new conditions on how the state operates the federally-funded Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program, with the goal of implementing the new work requirements.

“We’re a hard working state, and I think we need to continue to incentivize work,” said Rep. Jay Morris, a Monroe Republican whose SNAP bill is advancing to the full House for consideration. “Not getting up in the morning and doing something constructive is bad for the brain and bad for society.”

Food stamp benefits average about $194 a month in Louisiana, but SNAP is federally funded, so no state money would be saved through a change.

For the past 19 years, Louisiana has received a waiver from the federal government to bypass federal work requirements because of the state’s high unemployment rate.

Former Gov. Bobby Jindal first drew attention to the issue last year when he announced that he would not seek another waiver as he was leaving office, after having previously sought them during his two terms.

The Department of Children and Family Services estimated that about 31,000 people would have lost their benefits Jan. 1 because they had not met the new requirement, but Edwards moved to obtain a waiver, ensuring there was no disruption in benefits.

Morris’ House Bill 594, which won overwhelming support in the House Health and Welfare Committee Wednesday, would require legislative action to seek such a waiver, rather than just approval from the governor.

“We’re breaking the cycle of people depending on the state,” said Rep. Dodie Horton, R-Haughton. “Idle hands is not good for anyone.”

“It’s not racist. We have all races equally on SNAP and welfare,” Horton said, though race had not been brought up as an issue in the committee discussion.

Meanwhile, Edwards is working with the Workforce Commission to develop a program that will help SNAP recipients meet new requirements when his executive order creating new work requirements takes effect, his office confirmed Wednesday.

Edwards’ legal counsel Matthew Block testified that Edwards sought the federal SNAP waiver to end a lawsuit that had been filed to stop the new work requirements from taking effect last fall and provide more time to identify services that could help people meet the new conditions.

“We think it’s going to address many of the concerns that people in the public have,” Block said of the executive order. “People should try to become employed and get additional job training. We want to encourage that and require that.”

Stand With Dignity, a grass-roots group that was involved in the lawsuit challenging the work requirement, had organized hunger strikes and circulated petitions to raise attention. On Wednesday, Colette Tippy, of Stand With Dignity, said she was not aware of Edwards’ executive order plans.

The Louisiana Budget Project, an advocacy group that also opposed Jindal’s effort to instate the work requirement, opposes the bills that would require legislative action to seek federal work requirement waivers. Jan Moller, executive director of the Louisiana Budget Project, said he couldn’t comment on Edwards’ executive order because it hasn’t been finalized.

“We think it would be counterproductive to take away needed federal food assistance from people who can’t find jobs in our struggling state economy,” Moller said.

Some lawmakers questioned whether the state’s high unemployment and restricted funding for higher education would impact people’s abilities to meet the new requirement.

“Those will be challenges, but I think it’s worth it to incentivize what I believe to be healthy behavior and the work ethic that is critical to the success of individuals,” Morris said.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of Louisiana state government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.