Decorum was the first casualty of the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee’s rhetorical battle over Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits Wednesday.
Rep. Jack Considine Jr. (DFL-Mankato) told a testifier he should be criminally prosecuted before recanting. Rep. Mary Franson (R-Alexandria) compared the SNAP program to a plate of free cookies. And throughout the discussion, committee members yelled, interrupted each other and gesticulated.
The ruckus was caused by the hearing of HF118, a bill sponsored by Rep. Jeff Howe (R-Rockville), which would add to the requirements faced by households who receive SNAP benefits in an attempt to curb purported abuse by people whose finances are too high to merit the program.
To receive benefits, current law stipulates only that Minnesota households demonstrate their gross income is at or below 165 percent of the federal poverty line. However, HF118 would require they also comply with federal asset limits – with the exception of the one car per household rule when calculating assets. Therefore, families would be judged not only on their income but also the amount of money they already have.
Howe brought Rob Undersander from his district to testify about SNAP abuse; specifically, the abuse Undersander himself committed.
Undersander said he and his wife, a wealthy household, had intentionally applied for and received SNAP benefits for 19 months in order to draw attention to a loophole in the program. They managed to bilk about $6,000 in benefits, donating an equivalent amount to charity. Since Undersander’s income was so low (his Roth IRA doesn’t count as income), he said he could get away with receiving SNAP benefits even though he had a great deal of financial assets.
“Why did we do this? To raise public awareness,” Undersander said.
Undersander’s story prompted angry reactions from some DFL members, including Considine.
“You knew this was wrong, and you did it anyway,” he said. “Frankly, I find this very despicable.”
Considine later amended his remarks to clarify that Undersander had not actually broken the law.
HF118 does not have a fiscal note or local impact statement attached to it, so legislators don’t know how it would impact state or local budgets.
Several people testified against the bill, including representatives from the Legal Services Advocacy Project and Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis.
Rep. Matt Dean (R-Dellwood), who chairs the committee, recessed the meeting without action being taken on the bill, as the committee had gone over its time limit. He said it was uncertain whether a vote would be taken when the hearing resumed later in the day.