Wisconsin residents receiving FoodShare benefits would need to have their photo placed on their EBT card, could face fraud investigations if they request too many replacement cards, and have unused balances removed from their accounts, under a series of bills passed by the state Assembly on Tuesday.
Republicans said the series of bills are designed to reduce fraud in the program, which provides food purchasing assistance to low-income residents. Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) denied claims by Democrats that the measures are “mean spirited” and will make it harder for the poor to access benefits. The Rochester Republican said it’s not about taking food away from poor people. Rather, he stressed “we want to do everything we possibly can to find any fraud out there.”
Rep. Jesse Kremer (R-Kewaskum) is the sponsor of a bill requiring anyone with an EBT card to have their picture on their card. Critics question how effective the measure will be in stopping fraud, given that current federal law prevents store clerks from asking to see the cards of those using benefits.
Kremer argued the change should still be made though, so the state is poised to prevent fraud if there is a change in federal policy. “If there is an administrative change in Washington D.C., a new administration, that potential might exist that we might have the ability now to have cashiers check these cards…so we will be one step ahead of many other states.”
Democrats also slammed the bill for its estimated high cost of implementation, which state officials put at close to $7.4 million. While Republicans disputed those estimates, Rep. Andy Jorgensen (D-Milton) said “it’s appalling that they’d waste this much money to try and label themselves reformers.”
Another proposal taken up Tuesday would require the state Department of Health Services to notify those who request five or more replacement cards in the space of a year that they could be investigated for potential fraudulent activity.
Rep. Dave Heaton (R-Wausau) pointed to recent state audits that suggested a key warning of potential abuse is when a recipient requests multiple replacement cards in a short period of time. “We’re being responsible. We’re using common sense…we want to make sure the benefits get to those who truly need it, and not to those who have learned to game the system.”
Democrats argued that people do lose cards though, and the program is an expensive way to fight a small issue. Jorgensen noted implementation would be nearly $1 million for a problem tied to only about 900 households in the last year. “You are not fighting fraud, you’re increasing waste.”
The third bill would have the state clear out the balances in inactive FoodShare accounts after six months. It comes after reports that a handful of accounts had thousands of dollars in them, and Rep. Andre Jacque (R-De Pere) said it would help remove the temptation for possible fraud in the system.
Democrats countered that some of those accounts belong to the disabled and elderly, who may have to wait months to build up funds to make a trip to the store worthwhile. Jacque argued the bill is aimed at large unspent balances though, and that “if benefits are going unused month, after month, after month…the program isn’t functioning the way it’s supposed to.”
All three bills now head to the state Senate, where it’s currently unknown when the chamber plans to take up any of them.