The Republican-run Assembly passed several bills Tuesday aiming to reduce fraud in food stamp and unemployment insurance programs.
Several Democrats showed their disapproval of the legislation with Rep. Andy Jorgensen, D-Milton, saying in a statement he saw it as a continuation of Republicans targeting the underprivileged in the state.
“It seems that Republicans have a new favorite punching bag: the poor and jobless,” Jorgensen said in the statement.
While three of the bills target Foodshare — the state food stamp program — a fourth bill deals with an individual’s eligibility for employment benefits.
Fraud investigation after more than three replacement food stamp cards
Rep. Dave Heaton, R-Wausau, authored a bill which would limit the number of FoodShare cards a beneficiary can receive in a year.
Under the legislation, an individual can attain three cards within a 12-month period question-free. With a fourth card, the individual would be alerted that he or she may be subject to a fraud investigation and with a fifth card, he or she would be investigated.
“It is crucial for the state of Wisconsin to ensure that our state’s most vulnerable citizens have access to the support they need to provide for their families and build a better life,” Heaton said. “However, it’s equally important to ensure that our state’s entitlement programs, like FoodShare, are not abused in a way that wastes taxpayer dollars.”
The bill passed with a 66-31 vote, including support from five Democrats.
Adding photo ID to food stamp cards
The Assembly also passed a bill to require photo ID on all FoodShare cards. According to the Associated Press, the bill would cost $7.4 million to put in place and then $2 million every year after in order to distribute about 368,000 new cards to more than 823,000 FoodShare beneficiaries.
Strong opposition to the bill appeared in a 57-40 vote, including four Republicans siding with all Democrats against it.
Jorgenson called the bill “wasteful” in the statement because federal FoodShare regulations deny store clerks the ability to check the photo on the card.
“Republicans were confronted with the facts on FoodShare photo IDs — that they’re incredibly expensive and ultimately worthless in any effort to fight fraud — and yet, they’re persisting with this bill,” Jorgensen said. “It’s appalling, that they’d waste so much money to try to label themselves as reformers.”
Pamela Herd, University of Wisconsin public affairs and sociology professor, said concern about social welfare fraud goes back 150 years, not always reflecting the actual amount of fraud going on. So, she said the question is whether the large price tag is worth it, especially since store clerks can technically not enforce it.
Herd said one thing that could happen is that food stamp beneficiaries may not realize store clerks cannot deny them or store clerks may not know they cannot deny the FoodShare card users, so it could possibly work in those cases.
FoodShare benefits end after beneficiaries do not use them for six months
The third FoodShare bill would stop all benefits for an account that goes unused for six or more months. In order to regain the benefits, an individual would have to reapply.
The bill passed with a 66-31 vote, gaining support from five Democrats.
Assembly Majority Leader Rep. Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, said in a statement the FoodShare benefits are meant to help people who have fallen on tough times and that this legislation along with the other bills will decrease inidividuals’ ability to “scam the system.”
“Investing in fraud prevention efforts is a sensible way for state government to protect taxpayer dollars, and ensure the integrity of our public benefit system,” Steineke said.
Two instances of fraud lead to unemployment benefits ineligibility
The fourth bill, passed with a 63-34 vote, would bar any individual who impersonates another person or conceals information when applying for unemployment benefits within two consecutive years from receiving them for seven years.
Jorgenson said in the statement that the bill could impact people who make simple errors when filing weekly claims. He cited a study by the Legislative Audit Bureau recently which found that 85 percent of unemployment over payments stemmed from unintentional errors.
“Answering a confusing question incorrectly doesn’t make you a criminal,” Jorgensen said in the statement. “It means you’re a human being who — possibly due to a disability or distraction — made a simple mistake.”