By Patrick Marley and Jason Stein
Food stamp recipients would have to spend most of their benefits on healthy food, and more kinds of food stamp fraud would be explicitly subject to state sanctions, under separate bills approved Tuesday.
The Assembly approved, on a bipartisan vote of 68-26, a bill requiring at least two-thirds of the purchases in the state's FoodShare program to come from a list of state-defined healthy foods, with Republicans arguing that the benefits outweighed the opposition of some business interests and advocates for the needy. The measure now goes to the state Senate.
There are no figures on how much of the nearly $1.2 billion a year in FoodShare benefits in Wisconsin are spent on junk food, but proponents pointed to past stories about FoodShare recipients buying large amounts of soda or other unhealthy foods.
The proposal would likely be rejected by the federal government, which pays for the great majority of the program's costs. But the bill's lead sponsor, Rep. Dean Kaufert (R-Neenah), said state officials should push forward and hope for the final go-ahead from President Barack Obama's administration.
"Let Wisconsin be the test case. Let us lead the way," Kaufert said.
In a separate vote, the Senate backed the FoodShare fraud measure 28-5, with the opposition coming from Democratic Sens. Tim Cullen of Janesville, Nikiya Harris of Milwaukee, Mark Miller of Monona, Fred Risser of Madison and Lena Taylor of Milwaukee. The bill now goes to Gov. Scott Walker, who will evaluate it, spokesman Tom Evenson said.
That measure passed the Assembly 73-24 last month, with 13 Democrats joining all Republicans in support of it.
The Senate vote followed stories by the Journal Sentinel looking at the trafficking of FoodShare benefits as well as efforts by state officials to clamp down on the practice. It also implements at the state level recent changes in federal rules regarding the trafficking of food stamp benefits.
The legislation would provide an explicit prohibition in state law on both buying and selling FoodShare benefits and the food purchased with those benefits. The bill's opponents said that was redundant.
"This bill is unnecessary," Harris said. "It's already illegal, so why are we making it illegal a second time?"
A Journal Sentinel review found evidence of fraud occurring in a small fraction of the cases in the program. But with nearly 1.1 million Wisconsin recipients in the 2012 fiscal year, even a small amount of impropriety in FoodShare can add up.
In 2011, the newspaper reported on Milwaukee residents who were openly buying or selling FoodShare benefits in violation of the law on Facebook and other social media sites. The newspaper also found that nearly 2,000 FoodShare recipients in 2011 reported losing their Quest cards -- similar to debit cards and used by participants to purchase food -- six or more times in the previous year.
The bill keeps trafficking penalties at current levels. Fraud involving less than $100 would amount to a misdemeanor with up to $1,000 in fines and one year in jail. Infractions involving more than $100 would amount to one of several felonies, depending on the exact dollar amount.
Democrats contrasted the actions taken to hold FoodShare recipients accountable with what they said was a lack of effort by Republicans to address problems with subsidy programs for businesses at the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.
On the healthy foods bill, no studies have looked at the spending on different kinds of groceries within Wisconsin's FoodShare program, according to the state Department of Health Services. That means it's unclear whether the bill would actually increase the amount of money spent on healthy food in FoodShare.
Kaufert said that the bill should be passed because a substantial amount of FoodShare benefits is clearly being spent on junk food. But Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) said that's due in part to the fact that needy families in areas such as Milwaukee's inner city don't have ready access to stores stocking fresh fruits and vegetables.
"The business model is the corner store," Goyke said. "There's no access to healthy food."
Critics also said that the state list of healthy foods doesn't always include foods that most people see as healthy in moderation, including cranberries and some kinds of cheeses. Kaufert said that he was open to adding more foods to the state list later in the process.
The costs of implementing the program have also been a concern for grocery store owners, who would need to make significant computer system changes to do that. Kaufert's bill has drawn outright opposition from other groups, including Kraft Food Group -- the food giant whose holdings include Oscar Mayer Co. in Madison -- PepsiCo Inc. and state associations representing food processors, convenience stores and retailers.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the FoodShare program, isn't commenting on the Wisconsin bill. In the past, it has rejected proposals in other states restricting the sales of soda or candy using public benefits, including Minnesota in 2004, New York in 2010, and Mississippi in 2012.
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