Proposals that would cause thousands of Iowans to lose Medicaid coverage or federal food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are eligible for floor debate in both the Iowa House and Senate.
Republicans in each chamber’s Health and Human Services Committee changed some provisions in the bills, now numbered House File 613 and Senate File 494, then approved the legislation before the March 3 “funnel” deadline. However, the amended versions would still threaten health care or food assistance for many Iowans who now qualify.
THE BIG PICTURE: SUBSTANTIAL SUPPORT IN BOTH CHAMBERS
Iowa Senate Republicans have tried for years to establish strict asset tests for Iowans on food assistance, as well as higher hurdles to qualify for Medicaid. During the 2019, 2020, and 2021 legislative sessions, state senators voted along party lines to approve bills containing such language. Each time, the bills died in the House Human Services Committee with no action (see here, here, and here).
Governor Kim Reynolds has said little publicly about these policies, but in April 2021, her office quietly endorsed the idea of asset tests in a draft appropriations bill.
This year’s Senate bill, introduced by Health and Human Resources Committee chair Jeff Edler, recycled many ideas Senate Republicans proposed in the recent past. A subcommittee advanced the bill last month, and the full Health and Human Resources Committee approved an amended version on February 28, voting along party lines.
Momentum shifted in the state House in January, when 39 Republican lawmakers (including Speaker Pat Grassley, Majority Leader Matt Windschitl, and most of the GOP leadership team) co-sponsored House File 3, containing asset tests and severe restrictions on what kind of food Iowans could buy with SNAP benefits. House leaders had not previously endorsed those ideas.
After the proposal generated substantial negative media coverage in Iowa and nationally, House Republicans backtracked on language that would have prohibited Iowans from using food assistance to buy most kinds of meat, cheese, fruits, and vegetables. Health and Human Services Committee chair Ann Meyer told Iowa Public Radio in January her intention was to ban only soda and candy purchases using SNAP funds.
A House subcommittee advanced the bill in late January, but a full month passed before the Health and Human Services panel took it up. Even with an amendment, two House Republicans (Brian Lohse and Eddie Andrews) voted with Democrats against moving the bill out of committee.
It’s unlikely there are enough GOP holdouts to threaten passage of these bills in either chamber. However, Republican leaders in the House and Senate “have not agreed on final language for the bill,” the Des Moines Register reported.
The nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency has not yet published fiscal notes on the bills. Some states have found that asset tests and other burdensome administrative procedures cost the state government more than it saved. The federal government pays 100 percent of SNAP benefits, and shares administrative costs with the state.
WHAT WOULD THE REVISED BILLS DO?
The Iowa Hunger Coalition has created a website page for tracking the legislative proposals that threaten access to SNAP in Iowa. The initial House proposal is summarized here; the updated page lists key points of the revised bills.
Where House and Senate Republicans agree
Four major provisions are common to House File 613 and Senate File 494. First, only households with less than $15,000 in assets would qualify for SNAP. In calculating the assets, a household’s “primary residence, retirement accounts, and one vehicle would be excluded, as well as $10,000 in fair market value of a second vehicle. Even children’s savings accounts would count toward the asset limit for the household,” the hunger coalition notes. (The initial asset test in the House bill was far lower and did not exclude second vehicles, meaning that many families with more than one wage earner would have been disqualified.)
U.S. Department of Agriculture data indicates that as of January 2023, 36 states had not enacted asset tests that are stricter than federal rules for the SNAP program.
A 2016 report by the Urban Institute found that states with asset tests experienced more “churn” in the system, as low-income families cycled off and on receiving food assistance. The same study found asset tests discouraged recipients from having a bank account or saving for emergencies.
Another provision in the House and Senate bills requires applicants for benefits to “complete a computerized identity authentication process to confirm the identity of the applicant.” The Iowa Hunger Coalition notes,
While this may have the potential to increase access for some people (those with transportation or medical barriers, or without access to the required forms of identification), it also presents a significant access barrier to many people, especially those without internet access, limited credit history, or limited English proficiency.
This requirement would go against USDA regulations for SNAP. Were this new computerized identity authentication process an option, not a requirement, it would have the potential to increase access for SNAP applicants and would be in-line with USDA regulations.
In addition, House File 613 and Senate File 494 both allow the state to “contract with a third-party vendor to provide for identity verification, identity authentication, asset verification, and dual enrollment prevention” in public assistance programs.
That language explains why the Opportunity Solutions Project (which has helped draft previous bills introduced in the Iowa Senate) is one of very few entities registered in support of the bills. Numerous organizations have been lobbying against the proposals, which was also the case in past years.
Finally, both bills require applicants for Medicaid “to cooperate with child support services as a condition of eligibility.” The first version of the House bill required cooperation with child support services for Iowans to qualify for food assistance. Advocacy organizations convinced Republican lawmakers that the policy would inevitably take food away from children in low-income households.
Where House Republicans want to go further
The revised House bill contains a few ideas that weren’t in this year’s Senate legislation. As Meyer promised, Republicans amended the House bill to ban soda and candy purchases using SNAP funds. According to the Iowa Hunger Coalition, “USDA has never granted this type of waiver and we believe it is highly unlikely to happen. Maine was denied a waiver to restrict soda and candy from SNAP both under the Obama administration in 2015 and under the Trump administration in 2018.”
The House bill would allocate $1 million in state funds for the Double Up Food Bucks, which matches SNAP dollars spent on fresh fruits or vegetables—but only after USDA approves the state’s waiver request making soda or candy purchases ineligible.
House Republicans also want to require “able-bodied adults without dependents” to participate in an employment and training program, and to establish new work reporting obligations for some Iowans on Medicaid. Nonpartisan fiscal analysis of a 2019 Senate bill containing “workfare” requirements for Medicaid estimated it would have cost the state budget nearly $5 million more the first year and an additional $12 million every year thereafter, with “minimal” savings to the state.
Final note: a separate page on the Iowa Hunger Coalition’s site features an interactive map showing Iowa individuals and households receiving SNAP at the county level, with total benefits distributed statewide and in each county. USDA data show that the number of Iowans on SNAP has been trending downward for most of the last decade, despite a short-term spike early in the COVID-19 pandemic.
In that context, it’s not clear why Republican lawmakers are so determined to enact new barriers to food-insecure Iowans.