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GOP Defends Block Grants

December 07, 1995
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - One of Missouri's top welfare officials has come under attack by several GOP state legislators for attacking a key provision in the Republican Congressional plan for turning welfare over to the states.

At issue is the state administration's dislike of the Congressional proposal to use block grants to the states as a means to fund the food stamp program.

The dispute was prompted by a Columbia Missourian article on Oct. 10 in which Family Services Carmen Schulze said that the state most likely would reject the block-grant funding option for the food stamps program.

That statement led to a letter by seven GOP state house members to Schulze's boss, Social Services Department Director Gary Stangler.

The GOP lawmakers complained Schulze's statement made it appear that unelected administrators - rather than the legislature - will be making the decisions about how to implement whatever Congress eventually approves.

"We wanted to make sure we are included in the negotiations," said Pat Kelley, R-Lee's Summit and one of the letter's authors. "Such significant changes should go through the regular legislative process."

In a letter of reply, Stangler assured the lawmakers that the legislature has a role to play, particularly in the appropriations process. But then, he went on to echo Schulze's opposition to the Republican-backed block grant approach to food stamps.

Block grants are lump sum payments the federal government gives to the states combined with greater autonomy to run traditionally federal programs. In their efforts to return power to the states, Republicans in Congress have embraced the block-grant approach for many of their welfare initiatives.

In his letter to the GOP lawmakers, Stangler wrote that Missouri most likely would want to decline a block grant system. He cited burdensome and costly restrictions involved, including requiring states to implement an "electric benefit transfer" system which would issue food stamp benefits through ATM-like cards rather than coupons.

"If Missouri had had the food stamp block grant over the past five years, we would have lost $254 million," Stangler wrote.

"This would have been a severe blow to those in need of food assistance as well as to the retailers and merchants whose livelihoods depend on or are enhanced by the food stamp program."

But Stangler's arguments did not convince Rep. Brent Evans, R-St. Louis County and one of the letter's authors,

"Block grants are going to happen," Evans said. "Stangler has to figure out how to handle it. If the job is too big, maybe some people should move on."

Kelley agreed.

"This is a great opportunity to bring accountability and responsibility in delivering services to the poor," he said.

According to Evans there are two versions being debated by Congress on how the block grant money will come into the state coffers.

If Washington sends the money directly into the state general revenue account, as written under the U.S. House plan, Evans said the legislature will have a larger role in creating new state welfare programs. If the money is sent to the governor, the U.S. Senate approach, Stangler's department should have more of a say.

The two houses are now in the process of working out differences in their proposals.