DES MOINES — Statehouse Republicans advanced legislation Tuesday that would add more restrictions and requirements to public assistance programs.
The measures would require an asset test for Iowans applying for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, more commonly known as food stamps, as well as for Medicaid, the joint federal and state program that finances health care coverage annually for roughly 805,000 low-income and disabled Iowans.
Iowa now requires recipients to meet an income threshold, but does not restrict assets.
Senate Study Bill 1105 and House File 3, both passed out of committee largely along party lines with Democrats opposed, making them eligible for further consideration and floor debate this legislative session.
The measures propose the state Department of Health and Human Services enlist a private vendor to verify assets, identity and other eligibility requirements for hundreds of thousands of Iowans participating in public assistance programs involving federal and state benefits no later than July 1, 2025.
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Republicans said requiring Iowans who are receiving public assistance benefits to undergo more rigorous eligibility verification reviews would bolster program efficiency and weed out abuse, and make sure that people who are applying are eligible.
"The intention of this bill is to ensure Iowa’s welfare programs are sustainable and remain available for the Iowans who truly need them,“ said bill sponsor Rep. Thomas Jeneary, R-Le Mars. ”The Legislature is dedicated to protecting Iowa’s safety net for Iowans in need, while at the same time protecting Iowa taxpayers from paying services for ineligible individuals.“
Democrats contend cases of fraud are low and pushed Republicans for evidence.
The Iowa Department of Inspection and Appeals responded to 4,696 fraud referrals for the fiscal year ending June 30. Investigations resulted in savings to the state of more than $8.4 million, according to a 2022 “Fraud in Public Assistance Programs Report.” Of the referrals received by the department during the fiscal year, 97 percent were related to SNAP investigations.
Under the legislation, which was amended following concerns that having a car or modest savings could disqualify already economically stressed Iowa families from public assistance, households could have a maximum of $15,000 in assets.
The test would apply to all liquid assets, such as checking and savings accounts, and personal property, excluding one vehicle. The bills were amended to exclude a second vehicle with a fair market value less than $10,000 among other personal property and assets that could be counted against recipients.
They also establish the income threshold for Iowan families receiving food assistance at 160 percent of the federal poverty level. That equates to a household income of about $48,000 for a family of four.
Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott, D-West Des Moines, argued the proposed changes would likely raise the state’s costs by increasing the amount of paperwork and administrative oversight, while callously taking food out of the mouths of tens of thousands of children, who represent one-third of the approximately 300,000 people in Iowa who experience food insecurity.
Trone Garriott noted that Pennsylvania in 2015 ditched its asset test for SNAP after a three-year pilot program that saw administrative costs outweigh reductions in spending.
Iowa's average monthly SNAP participation of roughly 279,000 in the 2022 budget year was the lowest since 2008, according to federal data.
“Two-thirds of these households have children in them in,” said Rep. Austin Baeth, D-Des Moines. “So I think it’s really important as we raise barriers to these programs we realize that this may have unintended consequences of having children go without they food they would otherwise receive.”
Critics, too, argue asset hurdles would hurt low-income seniors and recipients with health problems. Democrats as well worried the legislation will create problems at a time when Iowans on Medicaid could lose their coverage over the next year.
Under the COVID-19 public health emergency, the federal government required state Medicaid agencies to provide coverage, even if an individual's eligibility changed. But the emergency is set to expire.
The Senate bill does not include other changes proposed in the House bill, which would:
• Require “able-bodied” adult Medicaid recipients to work at least 20 hours a week to receive health care benefits.
• Bar SNAP recipients from buying candy and soda.
Bill sponsor and Senate Health and Human Services Chair Sen. Jeff Edler, R-State Center, said House and Senate Republicans “are working to find agreement where we can.”
Any legislation that would change Iowa's SNAP program would require federal approval.
Jeneary said the bill will head to the House budget committee and have a fiscal note drafted by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency analyzing the fiscal impacts of the bill. Edler estimated the legislation would cost $3 million to implement.