JEFFERSON CITY — Gov. Jay Nixon is catching flak from all angles over a proposal to tighten eligibility for food stamps — including from those who agree with him.
By JASON HANCOCK
The Star’s Jefferson City correspondent
Many of Nixon’s fellow Democrats are calling on him to reverse course. Now is not the time to trim food stamps, they contend, with the economy still in recovery and many families struggling to make ends meet.
“I never would have thought a Democratic governor would contemplate doing something so callous as hurting those who live in poverty’s ability to buy food,” said Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, a St. Louis Democrat. “But you just never know with Nixon. One day he’s a Democrat, the next he’s a Republican.”
Meanwhile, Republicans have praised the governor’s decision. But they’ve also been quick to point out the similarity between Nixon’s reasoning for turning down federal food stamp money and GOP arguments against using federal funds to expand Medicaid.
“I think there’s certainly a lot of inconsistency with the governor’s positions,” said Sen. Ryan Silvey, a Kansas City Republican.
Nixon’s administration this month announced a plan to roll back an expansion of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — better known as SNAP or food stamps — that has allowed able-bodied adults without children to qualify despite failing to meet certain federal work requirements.
The expansion was made possible because the federal government has granted Missouri a statewide waiver of the work requirements since 2009. The waiver, which was included in federal welfare reform legislation passed in 1996, was designed to give states flexibility in times of insufficient jobs and high unemployment.
Forty-five states have received a similar waiver since 2007. It is projected that Missouri probably would qualify for the statewide waiver — and the additional federal money that comes with it — through 2015.
The Missouri Department of Social Services has proposed changing eligibility rules to waive the work requirements only in counties where the unemployment rate is higher than 10 percent. As of August, only three rural Missouri counties had unemployment rates that high.
Missouri currently has about 58,000 able-bodied adults without dependents who receive food stamp benefits. If the change goes into effect, an unemployed adult will have three months to find a job working at least 20 hours a week or enroll in a federally approved job training program. Otherwise, he or she will no longer receive food stamps.
The governor’s office declined to comment. But in an interview with PoliticMO’s Eli Yokley, Nixon said the motivation behind the decision was the prospect of Congress cutting food stamp funds.
“It’s clear from all discussions that we’re going to see downward pressure from the federal government,” he told Yokley. “You see every plan on the table in D.C. has those numbers going down. Rather than be in reactive mode, we thought the best thing to do was be prepared for the future and move forward accordingly as the resources from Washington are narrowed.”
The federal government pays 100 percent of food stamp benefits. The U.S. House voted last month to cut $39 billion from food assistance over 10 years, but President Barack Obama threatened to veto any bill that makes deep cuts to the program.
Silvey said he agrees that it is “unwise to become more reliant on federal funds that one day may not be there.” But why, Silvey asks, shouldn’t that same rationale apply to accepting federal money to expand Medicaid, the public health insurance program for the poor?
Expanding the number of people who qualify for Medicaid — a key component of the federal Affordable Care Act — is one of Nixon’s top legislative priorities. As part of that law, the federal government has promised to fund 100 percent of the cost of expansion for the first three years, gradually reducing its contribution to 90 percent by 2020.
“It’s hard to make the case that we should become more dependent on the federal government for Medicaid when the governor admits the federal government isn’t likely going to meet their responsibilities on food stamps,” Silvey said. “I do think that you have to apply that standard to other programs. You can’t just pick and choose.”
Senate Minority Leader Jolie Justus, a Kansas City Democrat, called the governor’s position “frustrating.”
“I have no indication that the federal government is going to stop funding food stamps or fail to keep up their end of the bargain on Medicaid,” she said. “So I disagree with the governor’s reasoning on that.”
If there is federal money available that can help Missourians in need, then the state shouldn’t reject it, said Sen. Paul LeVota, an Independence Democrat.
“Missourians pay federal taxes,” he said. “That’s our money. If we can use it to help people, I just don’t understand why we wouldn’t.”
In a letter to Nixon last week, LeVota argued that “taking the food out of the mouths of our citizens goes against the oath that we took to protect Missourians. I am disappointed that this rule has been proposed, so I ask you to reconsider.”
Before the change takes effect, there will be a public comment period. The rule change then will be reviewed by the legislature’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules. The rule-making process could take six months or more.
Nasheed, who serves as chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, said she plans to “do whatever it takes” to convince the governor to change course. That includes, she said, using her position in the state Senate to block nominees appointed by Nixon to various state agencies when the legislature returns to the Capitol in January.
“I’m ready to go to war with the governor if I have to,” she said. “If it comes to blocking appointments, that’s the way it’s going to go down. I work for the people. I don’t work for the governor. And the people who are going to be impacted the most by this are my constituents.”