Bill to stagger food stamp payouts passes Senate

Bill to stagger food stamp payouts passes Senate
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BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Lawmakers said they hope a new bill that passed the Senate 33-2 on Tuesday will allow Idaho to stagger when food-stamp recipients receive money to buy groceries.

Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon, said spreading out the release of those funds over 10 days could help offset "grocery store chaos" on the first of every month.

The change could tackle consumers' frustration over long lines, as well as give stores time to restock in-demand products, Guthrie said. Grocers reported the biggest problems were felt in Idaho's largest cities, which have a higher concentration of the state's 218,000 receiving food assistance, also known as SNAP or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

"Grocery stores can't keep up with the demand," Guthrie said. He added that preventing a rush on stores would give Idaho's bakers, growers and dairy farmers have more time to get their goods onto tables around the state.

Idaho is one of only nine states that do not use a staggered-release system. The state switched to the single-day benefits payout in 2009 because of economic downturn.

But implementing the system - which determines which day a person gets money for food based on birth year- isn't cheap. Estimates to get it off the ground range from $293,400 to $683,200.

That doesn't include what contractors may charge to switch over the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards over to a new version, Idaho Department of Health and Welfare spokesman Tom Shanahan said.

The program will likely cost about $232,000 each year after that, he said. The federal government pays half that amount, leaving Idaho to come up with the rest.

Some of the expense could be covered by bonuses from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which rewards states with top-performing food assistance programs. There's no guarantee: In the past decade, Idaho has earned a bonus five times, received nothing three times and been penalized twice.

If the state does not receive a bonus, the money to continue the staggered payout will come from Idaho's general fund.

Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston and one of only two senators who voted against the bill, said that funding would be better spent teaching SNAP recipients how to cook and how to spend wisely.

"I'd rather see this money go to educating these folks so they can be healthier, make better food choices and learn to spread their dollars," she said.

Lodge argued the one-day-a-month rush could be a possible boon - shoppers confronted by bare shelves at big box stores will likely take their dollars to smaller, locally owned grocers, pumping some of that money back into Idaho's economy.

Lodge also voiced concerns that the switch would cause confusion for food-stamp recipients who are used to receiving benefits on the first day of the month.

Shanahan said each EBT card will have a number on the front ranging from 1 to 10 that corresponds to the day it will be loaded with money.

Even without a staggered payout, he said, there's no requirement that SNAP benefits be spent the same day they are delivered.

Sen. Roy Lacey, D-Pocatello, said even so, an empty stomach is likely to trump the inconvenience of battling other shoppers. "Why you have a great rush on the first of the month is because they're hungry and there's a chance to get some food," he said.

Lacey said that the average family has used up all of its food-stamp money two-and-a-half weeks after they receive it. Handouts from Idaho food banks typical last between three and five days, leaving Idaho's poorest scraping the bottom of the barrel by the time the month ends.

An amendment to the bill pushes the start date for the program back from Dec. 31, 2015 to June 30, 2016.

That's plenty of time for people to adjust to a different system, Lacey said.

The Senate's vote returns the bill to the House. Lawmakers there will review the amendments before debating it a second time. The measure passed the House with a 50-16 vote earlier in March. If it clears again, Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter will decide whether to sign it into law.