Lawmakers Press Christie For Food Stamp Program

By John Celock

New Jersey lawmakers are asking Gov. Chris Christie (R) to increase the state’s energy assistance grant to food stamp beneficiaries in order to increase their overall benefits.

The Democratic-controlled state Senate passed legislation Monday to increase the state’s energy assistance grant to $21 per family in order to comply with new federal rules on the minimum state grant needed. The rules were changed from the previous one-dollar state grant after Republicans in Congress said that the “heat and eat” program was leading federal funds to be given to those without energy bills.

State Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Elizabeth), the resolution’s sponsor, told his colleagues Monday afternoon that the state needed to comply with the new $21 minimum in order to help the state’s needy. The increased energy grant was passed earlier this year as part of the new Farm Bill.

Under the terms, the state would be able to receive additional money in the food stamp, or SNAP, program for every family that receives $21 for energy assistance. The federal funds are to cover energy costs, but concern has been raised that many of those receiving the funds do not have energy bills as renters and were then using the funds as an increased food stamp allotment. The concern led to the $20 hike in the state contribution.

Lesniak told his colleagues that only four of the cold weather states eligible for “heat and eat” grants, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Michigan and Wisconsin, have not adopted the increased payment.

State Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Red Bank) told her colleagues that the state would not be able to get an increase in food stamps funds by increasing the payment. She said that in her meetings with Christie’s office and state Human Services Commissioner Jennifer Velez, she has received information that the federal government plans to crack down on states awarding the increased grant to those without energy bills.

“It will not get them a larger SNAP benefit,” Beck said.

Beck said that information provided to state human services officials from U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Matthews Burwell shows that Burwell and her agency are planning audits of states in the “heat and eat” program. Beck said that Burwell has told New Jersey officials that if the state cannot demonstrate an energy bill for those receiving the increased benefits, the state could lose all additional SNAP funds.

Lesniak disagreed with Beck’s assessment.

Beck said that she was working with Christie and his staff to find a way to increase SNAP benefits for state residents. She noted that with the hike in “heat and eat” minimums, benefits have been cut to residents and the food bank in Monmouth County has seen an increase in activity. But she warned that expanding “heat and eat” would only backfire.

“This resolution and frankly the bill we passed won’t help,” Beck said.