WASHINGTON, D.C.—Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) has reached an agreement with Massachusetts Rep. James McGovern to work together on legislation to bring the Marianas into the national food stamp program.
McGovern is the top Democrat on the House Nutrition Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. He is expected to chair the Rules Committee, which controls what legislation goes to the House floor, if Democrats take over the majority of the U.S. House of Representatives in January.
“I am working one year ahead on the food stamp issue,” Sablan said. “Food stamp benefits in the Marianas have doubled, and 3,610 families will be eligible beginning Oct. 1. This significant improvement is the result of the $32.5 million I put into the 2014 Agricultural Act.
“But the Commonwealth government already plans to cut benefits and push families out of the program in October 2019. So, between then and now, it is my job to find more money for the Commonwealth’s program. Or I must get the Marianas into SNAP. Jim McGovern has agreed to help me.”
Sablan and McGovern recently exchanged letters to memorialize their agreement. Sablan explained that delays in spending the 2014 money had blocked his efforts to add additional funds to the farm bill now in conference in Congress. “My goal for the farm bill had been to extend the [Marianas] pilot program or, ideally, bring the Marianas into SNAP,” Sablan wrote.
Unfortunately, he told McGovern, Republicans on the Agriculture Committee blocked an extension. Because the Commonwealth government and the Agriculture Department took their time in ramping up the pilot program, at the beginning of 2018 there were still $22.5 million in unspent funds from 2014.
In his letter, Sablan wrote, “I raised a ruckus at home about the delayed spending and took flak for doing so. But the result was that benefits were raised in May and just this week it was announced income thresholds would be lifted.
“Higher benefits. More families fed. These are good outcomes.”
Program will run out of funds
With more families getting higher benefits the Marianas program now faces a new problem: it will run out of funds. So, the Commonwealth plans to cut benefits and reduce the number of families that qualify for food aid a year from now. Sablan is already working on options to make sure that does not happen.
McGovern, who is one of the conferees on the farm bill now under consideration, agreed with Sablan’s analysis. “House and Senate Agriculture Committee leaders are currently working to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate-passed farm bills,” he wrote. “As you noted, this process is in its final stages. Given that, it is right to look for other opportunities to advance the goal of bringing the Northern Mariana Islands into [SNAP].
“Should stand-alone legislation be necessary to achieve this goal be necessary, please know I am happy to support your efforts.”
McGovern and Sablan served together on the Nutrition Subcommittee in the 112th Congress. It was at that time that Sablan got the $32.5 million for the Marianas pilot program that has allowed benefits to rise and made more families eligible.
McGovern also co-sponsored Sablan’s AYUDA Act in 2011, which was designed to bring the Marianas into SNAP.
“Whether it is through another stand-alone bill, or whether we just get more money for the Marianas pilot program in next year’s appropriations,” Sablan said. “I am not going to let those families, who are just now starting to get food assistance, lose that help.
“And I am not going to let benefits be cut back to the level they were before I got the extra $32.5 million in the Agricultural Act of 2014. I will find a way.”
Benefits for a family of four on Saipan have gone from $444 to $944, because of Sablan’s work. On Tinian, benefits climbed from $444 to $998, and on Rota from $444 to $1,150.
An additional 829 families are expected to begin getting food assistance on Oct. 1. (PR)