Five years ago, 184,000 low-income Kansans were on SNAP, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as food stamps.
Today, the enrollment tops 310,700 people.
A program that in 2007 cost the federal government about $190.3 million in Kansas outlays is expected to cost more than $450 million this year.
Congress, in recent months, has said SNAP has become too expensive and warrants serious belt-tightening.
In July, the Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate passed a five-year Farm Bill that would reduce SNAP spending by $4.5 billion over the next 10 years. The agriculture committee in the Republican-led House earlier this month passed a larger reduction of $16.5 billion over 10 years. Current SNAP spending is about $73 billion a year.
Looking for cuts
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the House option would end assistance to between 2 million and 3 million people nationally. What portion of those might be Kansans has not been determined.
States have had some flexibility over the years to expand eligibility for SNAP, and Kansas has been among the few states where policymakers have not adopted what is called “expanded categorical eligibility.” The House plan would eliminate that categorical option for states.
It also would eliminate federal incentive payments to states that have improved their food aid programs. Kansas has received at least four of those performance bonuses since 2003, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The agriculture committee’s bill has yet to reach the House floor.
The Senate bill would find its savings by decoupling food stamp eligibility from a federal subsidy program (LIHEAP) that helps poor people with home heating costs. Currently, people who qualify for the energy subsidy also are automatically qualified for SNAP benefits because the income limits are nearly the same. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 62,000 Kansas households qualified for LIHEAP subsidies in fiscal 2011, but the number of people who also received the food aid or the ramifications of the Senate plan for Kansas haven’t been determined.
Angela de Rocha, a spokesperson for the Kansas Department for Children and Families, which administers SNAP in Kansas, said the agency has a “neutral” stance on the federal proposals to scale back the nutrition program.
Stalled for now
For now, both the House and Senate plans are stalled on the SNAP issue despite considerable pressure on Congress to pass a Farm Bill, which includes the food assistance authorization.
“Typically, what would happen is that the ag committee would send a bill to the House floor, the House would pass a bill and then ‘conference’ with whatever was in the Senate bill,” said Helen Dombalis, a policy associate with the National Sustainable Agricultural Coalition. “That hasn’t happened because the speaker (U.S. John Boehner, R-Ohio) has kept the (House) bill off the floor. The speculation is that it doesn’t have enough votes to pass because the Tea Party-ers don’t think $16.5 billion is enough of a cut and the Democrats won’t vote for it because they think it’s too much.”
The House today decided against debating a bill that would allow smoking in bars.
Instead, members voted 62-49 to send the bill back to committee, likely ending this year's sole legislative challenge to the statewide smoking ban.
House Bill 2690 would allow smoking in bars or other businesses where all workers and patrons are at least 21 years old. The statewide smoking ban that began in 2010 currently exempts casino gaming floors, private clubs, retail tobacco shops, certain hotel rooms and designated spaces in adult long-term care facilities.
Under the bill, about 1,700 drinking establishments in the state would be eligible to allow smoking, too.
Rep. Brenda Landwehr, a Wichita Republican, said the double standard allowing smoking in casinos but not in bars was hurting businesses in her district.
"We look to see the loss of bars on the south side of Wichita at some point with the casino not being that far away," said Landwehr, chair of the Health and Human Services Committee. The floor vote sent HB 2690 to her committee.
Landwehr said adding another exemption to the smoking ban would be preferable to doing nothing, since the Legislature is unlikely to remove the exemption for casinos.
"There are a lot of people on this floor who say they oppose smoking in public places but they will not vote to ban it in the casinos and that's just wrong," Landwehr said. "If you take the exemption away from casinos, then you level the playing field. I think the bar owners would prefer to have smoking back in place, but we can only do what may be feasible up here."
Chris Masoner of the American Cancer Society's Kansas chapter said that today's vote should put an end to challenges to the smoking ban this year.
"I think technically there are ways it could be brought back up again, but my hope would be that today's vote indicates the House is willing to let the existing law stand," Masoner said.
Last month, the Kansas Supreme Court upheld a legal challenge to the smoking ban seeking to exempt more recently licensed private clubs.