IOWA LEGISLATURE

Iowa senators propose new scrutiny for public aid recipients

Democratic critics say 'mean bill' punishes those who need help

Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, addresses his Senate colleagues Wednesday during floor debate on a measure that would r
Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, addresses his Senate colleagues Wednesday during floor debate on a measure that would require Iowans receiving public assistance benefits to undergo eligibility reviews every three months. (Rod Boshart/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Republicans in the state Senate voted Wednesday to require Iowans receiving public assistance benefits to undergo eligibility reviews four times a year that they said were meant to weed out fraud and abuse.

Senators voted 32-17 along party lines to approve Senate File 2272 and send it to the Iowa House for consideration.

The proposal would enlist one or more private vendors to verify the eligibility of about 600,000 public assistance recipients for their income, assets, employment, residency, incarceration status, lottery winnings and other information, and report to the Iowa Department of Human Services every three months beginning in October 2021.

“If someone is fraudulently receiving benefits, they should be stopped,” said Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, the bill’s floor manager. Schultz — who told his Senate colleagues he had been “compared to Dr. Evil” for running the bill — said he believed the measure would improve efficiencies and free up Human Services employees to do other work.

‘I think we’re going the right way,” he said.

Democrats who voted against the measure said the bill ultimately would hurt “the most-vulnerable Iowans” and was designed to “trip up” recipients or make them “lawyer up” to protect the “food security” assistance for which they qualify — all while fighting vendors with a financial incentive to find savings for the state.

“This is a hot-button issue,” said Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo. “These are people with multiple barriers.”

Schultz said Human Services, not the vendor, would determine eligibility so there would be no incentive to reduce public aid participation.

According to a fiscal note prepared by the Legislative Services Agency, the eligibility verification system was expected to determine that 1 percent of the current Human Services enrollees receiving benefits would face cancellation.

That includes 5,999 Medicaid recipients, 793 recipients of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, 68 recipients of the Family Investment Program and 1,466 recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, according to the fiscal note.

Overall, agency analysts expected it would cost nearly $1.8 million to set up the verification program but that the overall effort would save nearly $12.35 million for the state and $47.74 million for the federal government in fiscal 2022.

However, Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, said the bill would reduce Iowa’s share of the Medicaid program, while Sen. Nate Boulton, D-Des Moines, argued the measure would punish poor people who rely on government benefits.

“Bills like this have real consequences,” said Senate Democratic Leader Janet Petersen of Des Moines, who expressed surprise the Senate was debating the measure on Ash Wednesday.

“This is a mean bill,” said Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City. “I’s going to save a few bucks by taking food out of people’s mouths.”

Sen. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, countered that SF 2272 would use modern technology to go after people who are scamming the system, which would make more money available for people who really deserve it.

Sen. Thomas Greene, R-Burlington, said he supported it because it attempted to curb misuse of taxpayer dollars.

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“I don’t think there’s a one of us who thinks this is a way to take away food from children,” he said in refuting Democrats’ claims. “This isn’t taking away from children. This is taking away luxuries for people who abuse the program.”

Schultz noted the federal government fined Iowa last year because the state made errors in administering food stamps at a rate of 10 percent, well above the national error rate of 6.8 percent. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is allowing Iowa to use part of the $1.8 million fine to pay for technology.

Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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