TALLAHASSEE — In a partisan clash, a key House committee voted Wednesday to deny food stamps to an estimated 229,000 Floridians, most of them children, and including seniors, veterans and people with disabilities.
The House Appropriations Committee passed a bill (HB 581) by freshman Rep. Frank White, R-Pensacola, that would restore income eligibility for households for food stamps to 130 percent of the poverty level, the minimum level set by the federal government. The household income standard was raised to 200 percent of poverty following the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009, which expanded the population eligible for food stamps. Florida remains one of 43 states with that broader eligibility standard.
The panel's chairman, Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, said the bill is needed to reduce food stamp fraud by verifying applicants' eligibility. To make his case, he described seeing people in grocery stores in Miami with "a Mercedes key chain and their SNAP card," a reference to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that provides nutrition assistance to millions of individuals and families with low incomes.
Anecdotes are often deployed when the subject of public assistance is discussed. U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz tweeted in 2013, when he was in the Florida House, that he saw a woman with back tattoos using her public assistance card at a Publix. "(Retweet) if you support entitlement reform," Gaetz told his followers.
That same year, Fox News aired a segment that went viral about a California surfer who bought lobster with his food stamps. And Ronald Reagan popularized the idea of the welfare queen in 1976.
But research shows those receiving public assistance live more frugally than those who don't. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, average total expenditures in 2011 were more than twice as high for families not receiving assistance, $66,525, compared to $30,582 for families who do.
Elaborating later with Capitol reporters about his anecdote, Trujillo said: "I'll never forget" seeing a woman shopper at a Sedano's Supermarket at SW Eighth Street and SW 51st Avenue in Miami. "I'm not sure if she was buying food for her grandmother but it seemed to me like it was all her own stuff," Trujillo said. "I think there's a lot, a lot of abuse in South Florida."
Asked when he saw this happen, Trujillo said it was "soon" after he married. According to his bio page on his law firm's website, he wed in 2007.
Florida has consistently received bonuses from the U.S. government for having one of the lowest food stamp error rates of any state, according to a House analysis of White's bill. Through 2014, the state had received bonuses for seven straight years, totaling $54 million.
The change being considered by the Legislature would deny eligibility to an estimated 229,311 recipients, or 6.8 percent of the current statewide total, beginning Jan. 1, 2018. The federal program is officially known as SNAP, for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Those who would still be eligible would receive $400 a year less a year in food stamps, Trujillo said.
"I think every tax dollar is sacred," White told lawmakers. "We should spend those tax dollars as if they are our own."
For a family of four, 130 percent of poverty is equal to a monthly family income of $2,633, and 200 percent of poverty is $4,050 a month, or about $48,000 a year. In November 2016, 3.3 million Florida individuals were enrolled in the food stamp program and 1.8 million of them were children, according to a House analysis.
Before the bill passed on an 18-9 vote along party lines, with Republicans voting yes and Democrats voting no, GOP members were largely silent during debate while Democrats railed against the legislation.
"Let's not be taking food off people's tables," said Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park.
"Food is a basic need, and hunger is a real problem," said Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami.
Said Rep. Bobby DuBose, D-Fort Lauderdale: "We're picking winners and losers when we're dealing with folks who are low-income. At the end of the day, poor is poor."
State data shows that even as the economy strengthened in recent years, the number of food stamp recipients outpaced population growth: 18.5 percent of Floridians were on food stamps in 2015.
The cost of the food stamp program is borne by the federal government, but operational costs are shared between the feds and states. White's bill includes a $300,000 grant to a private vendor to make technology changes to computers at the Department of Children and Families to verify applicants' assets to reduce fraud. During a testy exchange, Trujillo chided Democratic Rep. Lori Berman for the way she framed her questions. " 'People being hurt' is a subjective opinion," Trujillo said.
Contact Steve Bousquet at email@example.com. Follow @stevebousquet.