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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Pilot nat’l food stamp program for NMI defeated

The CNMI received a major setback in its proposed inclusion in the national food stamp program—including a $33 million pilot program—after the U.S. House of Representatives killed a national farm bill on Thursday.

Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) said it was a “surprising turn of events,” when 62 Republicans voted against their own leadership to kill H.R. 1947, an agriculture policy legislation that would cut $20.5 billion in food-stamp spending.

The 62 Republicans joined 172 Democrats to defeat the bill.

The 195-234 vote in the U.S. House came less than two weeks since the U.S. Senate passed a $955 billion version, leaving spending on farm programs in limbo.

Without a new law, these farm programs begin to expire on Sept. 30.

Sablan reiterated that being in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, “could double benefits for families in the NMI.”

Inclusion in SNAP, the national food stamp program, will add $12 million to $24 million into the CNMI economy compared to the current food stamp assistance block grant program, according to an independent study.

Sablan said that, although the legislative path forward is now “unclear,” Agriculture Committee chair Frank Lucas (R-Oklahoma) said he is “assessing all of our options, but I have no doubt that we will finish our work in the near future.”

He said Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minnesota), too, pledged “to do everything I can to get a farm bill passed.”

“I remain most grateful to both of these leaders for having included in the FARRM Act a $33-million pilot program for the NMI. This would lead to our participation in SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and lifted food stamp benefits for families in need in the Marianas,” Sablan said.

Sablan said even U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who has reportedly never voted for a “farm bill” during his 22-year congressional career, voted in favor of the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management, or FARRM, Act.

H.R. 1947 was the product of four years of intense effort first by Peterson and Lucas.

“Both men are credited with crafting a bipartisan bill that had strong support from Democrats and Republicans on the Agriculture Committee. Speaker Boehner and other Republican leaders would have expected similar bipartisanship from the full House of Representatives, but a Republican amendment to SNAP in the final hours of floor debate is generally credited with driving away Democratic votes needed to off-set the 62 Republican defections,” Sablan said.

In the meantime, the U.S. House Appropriations Committee has included at Sablan’s request language in its Committee Report for the fiscal year 2104 Agriculture appropriations bill that directs the Agriculture secretary to report on the feasibility of setting up SNAP in the CNMI.

“The Secretary must comply with this congressional requirement; and the study should provide further justification for extending SNAP to our islands,” Sablan added.

Gov. Eloy S. Inos supports the initiative to include the CNMI in the SNAP, primarily because it will pump more money into the local economy compared to the current food stamp assistance block grant program.

Under the farm bill that was defeated, if the study is favorable to the CNMI, a pilot program will be funded and carried out. These include the federal costs for providing technical assistance to the CNMI, authorizing and monitoring retail food stores, and assessing pilot operations.

The CNMI is to receive $13.5 million for the pilot program in fiscal year 2016.

It will receive $8.5 million for the same program in each of fiscal years 2017 and 2018. Overall, the funding for the CNMI under the bill is about $32.5 million.

National media reported that the farm bill collapsed because of continued divisions over food stamp cuts and the shape of future agriculture subsidies.

They said the vote is an embarrassment for the Republican leadership and caps a remarkable year in which the GOP first blocked any farm bill floor action last summer and now was unable to prevail even after Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor won key amendments in the final hours.

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