Democrats Pushing More CA Food Stamps

MAY 10, 2011


“I’ve never forgotten Jack Kemp saying the way we define compassion is not by adding up how many people receive government benefits, but rather tallying the numbers of those who no longer need them. The Democrat Party is not interested in that definition of compassion. The Democrat Party wants more and more people dependent.”

— Rush Limbaugh

Despite a $14 trillion national debt that is increasing by $1.4 trillion annually, California Democrats are seeking to get more state residents sucking on the federal teat — even if it will result in additional fraud.

Currently,  3.2 million Californians receive food stamps under the state’s CalFresh program, totaling 8.7 percent of state residents. There has been significant growth in the number of food stamp recipients — 21 percent more since 2009 and 62 percent more since 2006. Yet California remains significantly below the national average of 14.3 percent. To get up to speed, the state would need to sign up more than 2 million more residents — a 64 percent increase.

Assembly Democrats have sponsored several bills to help do that by:

* Allowing convicted drug criminals who have done their time to receive food stamps (AB 828).

* Making it easier for those no longer eligible for welfare (known as CalWORKs) to reapply for food stamps (AB 808).

* Making it easier for families with children receiving free school lunches to apply for food stamps (AB 402).

* Implementing a pilot program to get Social Security recipients to sign up for food stamps (AB 69).

* Eliminating fingerprinting of food stamp applicants, changing the quarterly reporting by applicants to semi-annual reporting and reducing energy bills for those receiving food stamps (AB 6).

The bills’ sponsors and supporters pointed out at the April 5 Assembly Human Services Committee hearing that because food stamps are a federal program, increasing their use would not add to California’s budget deficit. They also argued that every dollar spent on food leads to a nearly $2 boost in the state economy. The restaurant and grocer associations and Farm Bureau were among the bills’ supporters, along with a plethora of social service advocacy groups.

Most of the bills met with opposition by the two Republicans on the committee, but they were regularly outvoted 4-2 by the Democrats.

Fraud OK

AB 6 generated the most controversy due to its likelihood of leading to more fraud — a possibility that the bill’s sponsor, Felipe Fuentes, D-Sylmar, and the committee Democrats were willing to accept.

Fuentes said that California is 49th in the nation in the percentage of food stamp recipients and that only two other states require fingerprinting and photographing of applicants.

“California, the state that feeds this nation and much of the world, and we can’t even feed our own,” said Fuentes. “We are in the depths of a painful recession. Children are hungry. We have no general fund (money) to invest, but we must do something. The least we can do is remove the barriers that we have placed in front of these families. Our bottom line is that this bill will put food in empty stomachs. It feeds children.”

Cory Salzillo, director of legislation for the California District Attorneys Association, opposed the bill, pointing out that eliminating fingerprinting and requiring only semi-annual rather than quarterly reports from applicants would increase the likelihood of fraud.

The two Republicans on the committee, Shannon Grove of Bakersfield and Brian Jones of Santee, didn’t have a problem with semi-annual reporting but did want to retain the fingerprinting requirement. Grove said that fingerprinting has been estimated to save the state $68 million annually in fraud costs — $2 million of that in Fuentes’ Los Angeles County alone.

“I think there’s an incalculable advantage to having that there,” said Jones of the fingerprinting requirement. “We don’t know how much abuse we are preventing through that process. I think it just discourages folks from giving it a try if you know you’re going to be photographed and fingerprinted.”

Jones asked Fuentes whether he would be willing to delete that part of his bill. But Fuentes responded that fraud is minimal — a state audit found only 845 cases of fraud in eight years. And he argued that the risk of increased fraud would be more than offset by the economic gains from providing more food stamps.

“I think you have to take into real consideration that you’ve got restaurants and the Farm Bureau and other folks who I think recognize the economic activity that would be gained by getting those tens of millions if not hundreds of millions of dollars of additional activity into the state with federal money,” said Fuentes. “And understanding that California generally gets short shrift with federal dollars and knowing that we could remove barriers that, albeit could cause additional concern of deterrence for folks who want to perpetrate fraud, I think the numbers sort of weigh out here that I would rather risk getting additional dollars, additional economic activity for California than pull that part out of the bill.”

The committee Democrats showed a similar lack of concern about fraud when they voted down AB949. Sponsored by Jeff Gorell, R-Camarillo, the bill would have doubled the fine for those convicted of welfare fraud, with half of the extra revenue paying for additional fraud investigators.

Don Wagner, R-Irvine, speaking for Gorell, who is currently serving in the Navy deployed to Afghanistan, pointed out that there is supposed be at least one investigator for every 1,000 welfare cases. But in 2009 half of the counties in the state did not meet that ratio. “The result is fraud goes undetected and deserving CalWORKs recipients go unserved,” said Wagner.

Arguing against the bill was Mike Herald, legislative advocate with the Western Center on Law and Poverty. He said that California spends more money on fraud prevention than any other state and that multiple systems are already in place to deter fraud.

“Less than 2.4 percent of all cases ever get referred for fraud and just 1 percent of those referred for fraud ever ends up in a fraud conviction,” Herald said. “To us that’s not an example of a system that needs further funding and further staffing. That’s a sign of a system that’s already working quite effectively and really we should leave it alone.”

Also opposed was Kevin Aslanian, executive director of the Coalition of California Welfare Rights Organizations, who said, “These days in California a lot of people are doing jail time because they can’t pay the fine. This is just going to increase the jail time that people will be doing because they can’t pay the fine. That affects the family. And it’s also a job killer.”

Case Backlog

Wagner responded, “If you can’t do the time don’t do the crime. We are talking about crimes that defraud the state of California and take money out of the pockets of the least among us, the poorest among us. The prosecution numbers that you heard are quite a bit skewed. Prosecution is only for cases resulting in above $10,000 in fraud. There are a lot of fraud cases that come below that line.

“The state auditor said that as of 2008 there was a backlog of 6,381 referrals and 6,858 new referrals, resulting in a total caseload of 13,239 referred cases for prosecution. The counties were only able to act on 5,074 of those cases — well below half of them — because of a lack of resources.

“We are not asking for resources out of the general fund to handle those cases. We are asking for resources out of those who are defrauding the system to increase the number of cases that can be handled. With respect to the question of convictions, the percentage resulting in convictions in San Diego County was 96 percent, Sacramento County — 93 percent, LA county — 88 percent. Statewide the rate is 83 percent. We’re not talking about an epidemic of cases that are found to be not meritorious. Where there are referred cases, they are typically found to be meritorious. And what this bill will do is provide the resources necessary to continue to ferret out the fraud.

“Only substantial cases of welfare fraud are referred for prosecution. Not someone who fudged their income information, for example, on a welfare application. The welfare departments in each county have discretion on whether they want to take administrative action or refer the cases for prosecution. Administrative action simply results in a reduction or discontinuance of aid, not someone going to jail. If we have reason to believe that substantial fraud is involved, such as organized crime, counties can refer the case to an investigator for potential prosecution.

“Some organized crime groups are actively extorting thousands of dollars from taxpayers. A 2007 L.A. Daily News article reported that welfare investigation authorities and social service officials expressed a significant problem that organized crime groups inflict upon welfare programs. And that has increased significantly over the last decade. We shouldn’t tolerate this as a legislature. And it is the responsibility of our legislature to ensure that tax dollars are only used for those who truly deserve the help.”

The committee Democrats — Jim Beall of San Jose, Tom Ammiano of San Francisco, Betsy Butler of Marina del Rey and Sandré Swanson of Oakland — were not persuaded, killing the bill by voting against it 4-2.



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