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LePage's Food Stamp Threat Jeopardizes Benefits for Mainers

The latest skirmish between Gov. LePage and the federal government over food stamps has taken another turn. The feds now say that more than 195,000 Mainers who receive food assistance could lose it if Gov. Paul LePage follows through on his threat to stop administering the program. There is no backup if the state bows out.

The federal agency that oversees and funds state food stamp programs says it has neither the funding, nor the authority, to administer the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also says that Maine could lose federal funding to administer the program if the governor attempts to implement a prohibition on the purchase of sugary snacks and drinks with benefit cards without federal approval. Further, authorized SNAP food retailers are bound by law to operate in accordance with federal policy.

“I think Mainers deserve better than this,” says Matt Herrick, spokesman for the USDA.

Herrick says the governor’s fiery ultimatum, outlined in a June 17th letter to his agency, faces three potential outcomes: low-income Mainers will lose their food benefits, the state could lose $300 million in federal money to administer the program if tries to implement the ban without federal approval, and authorized SNAP retailers would risk violating federal law if they participated in an unsanctioned ban.

Says Herrick, “The 100,000 families in Maine who depend on SNAP are no different than anyone else and they shouldn’t be penalized or threatened with greater hardship.”

Herrick says the governor or his staff either “completely misinterpreted or ignored” the USDA’s June 8th response to a proposal from the LePage administration to implement a test ban on the purchase of foods deemed high in sugar or fat. That letter did not decline the administration’s request, but it did outline a number of deficiencies with Maine’s proposal – primarily that it failed to demonstrate how the project will curb obesity.

“As the federal agency responsible for the program and those tax dollars, we need those answers,” says Herrick.

The agency invited the administration to present revisions. Instead, LePage intervened with a broadside directed at USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. He told Vilsack to “wake up and smell the energy drinks” after accusing the agency of caving to the retail grocery and “junk food” lobby – industries that have previously opposed such bans.

Herrick said the governor jumped to conclusions rather than answer questions about the proposal.

“So to react like this, to threaten children, to threatened the disabled, to threaten families trying to make ends meet … this is not the way,” Herrick says.

Maine Senate Republican President Mike Thibodeau said, “While I appreciate the governor’s frustration with it, we want to make sure that we don’t take action unilaterally that would be outside the rule of law.”

Thibodeau supports the governor’s proposal, but says the administration shouldn’t defy the federal government if it means risking funding for the program, fines or an interruption in benefits to Mainers.

“We don’t want to do something that would somehow trigger a fine by the federal government for us taking unilateral action,” Thibodeau says. “So I think we ought to be very careful that we operate within the rule of law.”

Democrats were swift to condemn the governor. Sen. Justin Alfond characterized the governor’s response as a dangerous gambit that could jeopardize food insecure Mainers.

Democratic U.S. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree emphasized that the USDA can’t – and won’t – take over Maine’s SNAP program.

“I mean, I don’t think that’s how Mainers act towards each other. And it means that there will be no SNAP benefits, used to be called food stamps, but there will be no assistance to people who are struggling,” Pingree added. “That means seniors, that means children. This would be a pretty dramatic problem.”

It remains unclear just how far the governor is willing to push the issue. His press office did not respond to an interview request. On Tuesday, LePage’s spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said the governor knew his letter would garner attention and that he was serious about challenging the federal government.

Herrick, with USDA, says his agency eagerly awaits the administration’s updated proposal.

“There are ways to work through issues like this and we’ve asked the state to work with us, and we hope that they do,” Herrick says.