The head of the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs claims that the allegations made against the CNMI Nutrition Assistance Program by Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) are not factual and stems from political motives.
Last Thursday, Sablan put out a press release claiming that the local NAP office is sitting on $22 million worth of funding that remains unspent.
According to DCCA Secretary Robert Hunter, Sablan is plain wrong and he is aware of it.
“He knows that there is a plan in place for the Enhanced Nutrition Assistance Program and the expenditure of the funds under that program, that it is a living plan, and that it is the product of very close and continuous work with our federal grantors, the Food and Nutrition Service, and that it is followed meticulously and adjusted as necessary. …According to the FNS, our NAP has thus far run an exemplary NAP and ENAP,” he said.
Hunter clarified that the funding that has been allocated to the NAP program has been spread out through 2021 to ensure that there is less of a chance that beneficiaries will see a reduction in benefits before the Farm Bill (which ensures funding for the NAP program) makes it though Congress.
“As the congressman knows, the last [Farm] Bill was delayed. This bill is scheduled for action in 2019 and, in case it is once again delayed, our plan took that into account by running the program past that date. This was something that all parties thought was strategically smart,” he said.
According to Hunter, the multi-year plan not only raises income eligibility and benefits in a much more thoughtful way than the language of the original SNAP pilot that was included in the current Farm Bill, but it sees the development of an eligibility system, the implementation of an Electronic Benefits Transfer system that is tied into the eligibility system and that will move recipients from paper coupons to cards, and the revision of current processes and regulations to parallel them as close to the SNAP program as possible by the time the Farm Bill comes around.
“If we’re running a parallel program, it should make it that much easier for the [delegate] to see us into the full SNAP. So this is exactly what our NAP has been doing, and as I stated, we have been working closely with the FNS every step of the way,” said Hunter.
Hunter stated that from the $22 million that has been allocated to the CNMI, $6 million has been obligated or spent, with over a million distributed monthly to 2,662 eligible households. These numbers have grown and are expected to grow as adjustments to projections are made.
“What we cannot do is put the ENAP in a position where the projected benefits exceed the available dollars. So we do not see the program put into that position, we have taken a precautionary approach to the increase in eligibility and benefits. The act stipulates that the grant funds for the ENAP will be available to the CNMI until expended. Rather than expend it all in one short six- to seven-month period…. we are carrying out a more thoughtful plan that see benefits gradually rise before a gradual tapering off, and where this gradual reduction period is dovetailed by the successful inclusion of the CNMI in the full SNAP by our U.S. congressman, so that the increased benefits see permanency,” he said.
According to Hunter, the funding will not be spent through 2024 as Sablan stated.
“The NAP met with the FNS recently and there are proposed new revisions that will see an increase in income eligibility and benefits in the upcoming fiscal years. But we are doing this in a well-thought out way, and with the approval of the FNS,” he said.
According to Hunter, this was not Sablan’s first statement about NAP.
“These were put out without our input or consultation. While it plainly looked like the congressman was trying to score points for the work we were doing… we were more concerned with the work, and decided not to say anything publicly. This was never about publicity for us,” he said.
Hunter believes the press release from Sablan’s office was a ploy not only to score political points, but to develop an excuse in advance of action on the Farm Bill, as to why he was once again unsuccessful in seeing the CNMI a party to beneficial legislation.
“If that happens, that is on him and his ability as a congressman, not on our NAP. Let me be absolutely clear, if the CNMI does not see a transition into the SNAP in the upcoming Farm Bill, that is on the congressman’s ability or inability to see that happen, not on the CNMI government, the DCCA, or NAP,” he said.
Hunter said that what saddens him is that Sablan also denigrated the people who worked very hard and diligently in helping develop and carry out these plans, and who have done an outstanding job, and who have been recognized for it by federal partners. “That he has opted to denigrate us in an attempt to score cheap political points is at best obscene,” he said.