Senate panel OKs costly new SNAP, Medicaid limits that would punish struggling Alabamians

There’s an old saying: If you like laws or sausage, you should never watch either one being made. Wednesday afternoon was a perfect example of how stomach-turning it can be to see how laws are often made in Alabama.

The Senate Fiscal Responsibility and Economic Development Committee approved a bill Wednesday to cut new holes in Alabama’s safety net. This plan would erect harmful, expensive new barriers to food assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), health coverage under Medicaid, and cash aid under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. And it would increase hunger and hardship for tens of thousands of struggling Alabamians in the process.

The bill – SB 294, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur – is a version of the “HOPE Act” promulgated by the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA), a nationwide conservative organization based in Florida. The bill now awaits consideration in the full Senate.

At a public hearing Wednesday, four Alabamians spoke against SB 294:

  • Carol Gundlach, policy analyst at Alabama Arise.
  • Jim Jones, director of Alabama Childhood Food Solutions.
  • Laura Lester, executive director of the Alabama Food Bank Association.
  • Ashley Lyerly, director of advocacy with the American Lung Association in Birmingham.

All of us agreed that this bill would make people in Alabama poorer, hungrier and sicker. The only speaker in support was an FGA staffer from Arkansas who repeatedly misstated many of the bill’s provisions. Compounding the problem, many committee members showed unfamiliarity with how safety net programs work in Alabama. The result was a frustrating discussion that consistently mixed up SNAP, TANF, Medicaid and even SSI eligibility requirements. In the end, few people left the room with a clear understanding of the bill.

How SB 294 would hurt struggling Alabamians

But it’s important to recognize the wide-ranging harm this plan would cause. SB 294 would take many steps to worsen life for Alabamians in poverty:

  • Reinstitute a SNAP asset test that could deny food assistance to some families with more than one automobile or to seniors with small savings accounts for medical or funeral costs.
  • Eliminate a slightly higher gross income limit for seniors, which helps make up for their higher medical costs.
  • Prohibit Gov. Kay Ivey from requesting a federal waiver of work requirements imposed on a small group of SNAP recipients, unless the unemployment rate is greater than 10%.
  • Require every non-disabled SNAP participant over age 16 to participate in an expensive workfare program, including parents with children over 6. This requirement would make it impossible for Alabama to continue operating an excellent job-training program that serves 36 counties.
  • Deny SNAP food assistance to people who fail to “comply” with child support services. But the word “comply” is not defined in SB 294. So we don’t know for sure what hoops people would need to jump through to get SNAP.
  • Reduce the maximum number of months that parents can receive TANF cash assistance to 36 months in a lifetime. This would cut even more adults off TANF, which is already a shadow of what was once the country’s most important anti-poverty program.
  • Require SNAP and Medicaid participants to recertify eligibility every six months. This complicated process inevitably would end assistance for otherwise eligible people who simply couldn’t navigate the red tape.

Many of SB 294’s would-be limits lack specificity. But proposed new data verification requirements are spelled out in minute detail. The bill also would allow Alabama to contract with a private company to comply with those requirements, a provision that raised several eyebrows.

The good news: SB 294 is a long way from becoming law

Now that it has won committee approval, SB 294 could appear on the Senate’s calendar at any time. But we expect the Senate to vote on the education budget next week, so SB 294 is unlikely to come up before May 7 at the earliest. And even if the Senate passed the bill, it still would have to clear the House as well. The closer we get to the end of the regular session, the less time SB 294 has to become law.

We’ll be keeping an eye on this harmful bill while we organize Arise supporters to make their opposition known. Watch this space for further updates!