Heider, Lodge block proposal to tackle food stamp fraud

By Wayne Hoffman

It’s disturbing: Idaho lawmakers have blocked discussion, yes discussion, of a proposal to cut down on food stamp fraud. Members of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee rejected consideration of a proposal to possibly add identification photos to Idaho food stamp cards, investigate requests for new food stamp cards by recipients who lose an unusual number of them, and crosscheck food stamp recipients with the names of lottery winners.

The proposal comes from the Foundation for Government Accountability. The FGA, a national group, is educating lawmakers in several states about how to cut down on welfare fraud and successfully assist low-income people on a path to prosperity.

The FGA proposal was modest. The organization’s draft legislation allowed food stamp recipients to decide if they wanted their photos on their government-issued debit cards. Evidence shows that photo identification, along with lottery cross-checks and the review of excessive “lost card” replacements, helps reduce the fraud and abuse we all know exists in the food stamp program.

But, the committee wouldn’t have anything of it; the measure failed to win the support to even be introduced for a full-hearing discussion. Committee Chairman Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, couldn’t explain his vote against the proposal when I asked him about it in a Statehouse hallway. Republican Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, criticized the proposal because retailers wouldn’t be able to single out food stamp users to prove their identification.

“Anyone can still use the card,” Lodge said before the vote. Her comments closely followed Otter administration talking points given to committee members ahead of the introduction hearing. Former state Sen. Joyce Broadsword, now a Department of Health and Welfare employee, distributed a one-page email that outlined the agency’s objections. The email contended the agency is already doing a fantastic job chasing food stamp fraud, making additional legislation unnecessary.

Boise Democrat Maryanne Jordan sided with Lodge. Jordan said the photo-addition effort was not worth the cost, which was forecast at $1-2 per participating food stamp recipient. The plan could have used existing Idaho Transportation Department photos.

“I find this very troubling and without a lot of data to back it up,” Jordan said. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, joined her, Lodge and Heider in opposition to the bill. Boise Republican Fred Martin initially passed on supporting or opposing the measure’s introduction then cast a belated vote against after its doom was obvious. Republicans Marv Hagedorn of Meridian, Sheryl Nuxoll of Grangeville, and Mark Harris of Soda Springs voted to introduce the measure.

Other states aren’t so bashful about attacking the problem of excessive and fraudulent food stamp use. The state of Maine, in 2014, implemented a photo ID program for food stamp participants. Today, more than 36,000 Maine residents have their pictures on government-issued food stamp cards. Rhode Island is another state that is considering what Idaho won’t.

The reduction of food stamp fraud is undeniably popular with voters of all political and ideological persuasions. Taxpayers are frustrated by the obvious abuse of the program; everyone has their own anecdote of how they’ve seen the program misused: a food stamp recipient driving a fancy car, or using the benefits to buy junk food, cigarettes and alcohol. People who believe in the program’s value have expressed frustration at aid not reaching the truly needy because of waste or outright fraud. That Heider, Lodge, Jordan, Schmidt and Martin were unwilling to even consider taking a little more time to discuss the problem, as well as possible simple solutions, is equally frustrating.

Wayne Hoffman is president of the Idaho Freedom Foundation.