A group of Louisiana legislators would decide in the future whether many unemployed residents should be able to receive food stamps for an extended period under legislation that is working its way through the State Capitol.
The governor has traditionally had final say in whether the state seeks a federal waiver to get around the work requirements for able-bodied adults without children on the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program, but a bill that has passed the state House and is heading to the Senate for consideration would put the decision in the hands of a panel of legislators.
“This bill doesn’t prohibit Louisiana from applying for that waiver,” said Rep. Jay Morris, a Monroe Republican who is trying with his House Bill 594 to shift authority to a committee of legislators from each chamber who serve on health care committees. “I don’t know why it’s been applied for every year.”
His bill passed the House in a 55-29 vote after about an hour of debate.
For the past 19 years, Louisiana governors have requested and received waiver from the federal government to bypass work requirements because of the state’s high unemployment rate. Several other states also are granted waivers due to unemployment rates.
Without a waiver, unemployed, able-bodied adults without dependents would have to seek workforce training or lose their benefits after three months. They also can perform weekly community service to meet the work requirement.
Food stamp benefits average about $194 a month in Louisiana, but SNAP is federally funded, so no state money is directly tied to the waiver.
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.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who was sworn in on Jan. 11, sought a waiver shortly after taking office, but he is expected to issue an executive order later this month that will put in place some work requirements.
House Democrats, during a debate on HB594, raised concerns about the bill’s potential impact and intent.
“It seems as if (it’s) to replace the authority of the executive branch,” said Rep. Edward Price, D-Gonzales.
Morris acknowledged that he doesn’t think the state should opt out of work requirements.
“I don’t want anybody to starve, obviously,” he said. “I think it’s better for the state and it’s better for the individual to get up and do something every day,” he said, noting the community service option. “They are more likely to get a job if they do get up every day.”
But some argued that people may not have access to a framework for community service or workforce training.
Rep. Malinda White, D-Bogalusa, said thousands of people have lost their jobs in the oil and gas industry as oil prices have plunged.
“They are able-bodied people, maybe without dependents, however, they’ve been working, paying their bills doing it the American way,” she said. “Maybe they are in a moment right now where they don’t have that safety net, but they have certainly paid their dues.”
“These men and women should not have to come to the Capitol to a hearing to be able to eat,” she added.
Morris defended his bill as leaving the decision to lawmakers who would have to reach a decision, rather than one office.
“This bill is not harsh; it’s not mean-spirited,” he said. “It’s in the best interest of the state.”
Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.
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