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Friday, February 23, 2024

Committee takes up bills to drug test, regulate food purchases of welfare recipients

An Assembly committee heard public testimony Thursday on two bills that would require drug testing for public benefit recipients and another that would restrict what foods food stamp recipients can purchase.

The state Committee on Public Benefit Reform took up a bill that would require food stamp recipients to use at least two-thirds of their benefits on foods the federal Women Infant and Children program deems nutritional. The measure would also prohibit the purchase of more expensive foods including crab, shrimp and lobster.

“Taxpayers have the right to expect participants to make reasonable decisions,” said state Rep. Janel Brandtjen, R-Menomonee Falls, in her testimony. “This bill sets quality nutritional guidelines.”

Committee Democrats pushed back against the bill, saying it lacked common sense and that the list of approved foods overly restrictive.

“Why are we doing this? Why are we stigmatizing the poor? Why are we limiting their choices?” asked state Rep. Debra Kolste, D-Janesville. “You're calling this abuse because they’re making a different choice than you would.”

Because the SNAP program involves federal funding, the state would need federal approval in order to implement these restrictions. While no state has previously been given such a waiver, bill author state Rep. Robert Brooks, R-Saukville, said he was confident Wisconsin could receive federal approval.

The other two bills taken up Thursday would require those who receive job training, food stamps or unemployment benefits to submit to drug tests. If those tests come back positive, the person would enroll in a state funded treatment program to continue receiving benefits.

State Rep. Mike Rohrkaste, R-Neenah, who authored both drug testing bills, defended them as ways to help improve the state’s workforce and help people with substance abuse problems get treatment.

“I want to make sure that those looking for work are given tools to be successful and ensure employees are drug free,” Rohrkaste said. “I see this as an opportunity to expand the job pool.”

The Rev. Scott Anderson of the Wisconsin Council of Churches disagreed with Rohrkaste’s assessment that the bill is “a hand up” for welfare recipients.

“Those in poverty will be punished—not helped—by this policy,” Anderson said. “We view these bills as dehumanizing and degrading.”

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