A House of Delegates committee sent to the floor Monday a bill that would impose work requirements on people receiving benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
A vast majority of speakers testified against House Bill 4001 at a public hearing Monday morning. However, in two subsequent sessions, the House Judiciary Committee considered two new versions of the bill, which become generally available to the public only upon approval.
The committee substitutes include legislative changes that the counsel for the committee described as “substantive and significant.”
House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, said he sees no problem with introducing a substitute for a bill after the public has spoken about its original language.
“That’s the way it’s always been done here, as far as I know,” he said. “We have a limited amount of time to get our report done, it’s typical that the public hearing is held close in time. The committee substitute could be easily rejected, it’s always in a state of evolution as to what the bill is going to look like. That’s why we let folks know that the bill can change in its form, not only in the committee substitute, but as it develops through committee.”
The most recent committee substitute would require all able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 50 — who are not disabled, pregnant or responsible for caring for a child — to either work, volunteer or participate in an education program for 20 hours a week to receive SNAP benefits. Those who do not meet the work requirements would remain SNAP-eligible for three months in any 36 month period.
While the Department of Health and Human Resources currently follows these rules and issues waivers for nonworking, able-bodied adults, the bill would rescind the department’s ability to issue these waivers in certain counties where the 12-month average unemployment rate is above 10 percent in October 2018. It would apply for all counties in 2021.
The second committee substitute did not contain provisions requiring an “asset test” for people who apply to receive benefits through either SNAP or the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, as earlier versions did.
Along with eligibility and identity authentication requirements, the most-recent version of the bill authorizes the DHHR to contract with a third-party vendor to verify income, assets and identity eligibility of applicants “to prevent fraud, misrepresentation and inadequate documentation” when applying.
The legislation states that the contract may not include language providing the vendor with a monetary incentive to reduce the number of SNAP recipients.
The committee made additional changes to the bill Monday evening, though those changes were not posted on the Legislature’s web page as of press time.
The DHHR has been running a pilot program of the legislation in nine counties: Berkeley, Cabell, Harrison, Jefferson, Kanawha, Marion, Monongalia, Morgan and Putnam. In those counties, while the number of SNAP recipients has decreased by about 5,400, employment data did not increase, as some proponents had expected.
“Our best data does not indicate that the program has had a significant impact on employment figures for the [Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents] population in the nine issuance-limited counties,” a DHHR writeup of the pilot reads.
At the public hearing Monday morning, members of the public overwhelmingly opposed the bill. Of the 23 people who spoke, only two of them spoke in favor of it.
Most the opposition centered on the state’s dependence on SNAP. According to WV Foodlink, a research project out of West Virginia University, one in five West Virginians depends on SNAP, as does 1 in 3 children.
Additionally, as Rick Wilson of the American Friends Service Committee put it, there’s no real grassroots push for the bill.
“I think it’s an understatement to say there’s no groundswell of opinion to take away benefits from people living on $4 per day,” he said.
Two people spoke in favor of the bill: Juliet Terry, of the Opportunity Solutions Project and the West Virginia Business and Industry Council, and John Canfield, of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce. They said the bill would incentivize people receiving state aid to work.
“It encourages self-sufficiency and for people to work back toward their independence that perhaps they lost because of unfortunate circumstances,” Terry said. “But it also helps government fight against waste, fraud and abuse, to preserve its precious resources for the people who truly need help.”
The House Health and Human Resources Committee passed H.B. 4001 with an amendment attached in January. That amendment was rolled into the committee substitutes, along with recommendations from staff.
A similar bill passed the state Senate last year but died at the House Judiciary Committee.