A bill that passed the Senate and is now in the hands of the House would change the way the Department of Human Services calculates eligibility for welfare programs administered by the state.
Senate Bill 2762 , which is sponsored by state Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, would change the way the DHS calculates eligibility for welfare programs. Right now, the state uses change reporting, which requires benefit recipients to inform the agency if they have a change in income larger than $100 within 10 days of that change.
Fillingane’s legislation would change this to simplified reporting, which beneficiaries from the programs would be required to report changes that make them ineligible to receive benefits and the state would be required to recertify a beneficiary every six months.
In debate over the bill, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, said passage of the legislation would “explode” the welfare rolls statewide and allow more waste, fraud and abuse in the system.
Fillingane told the Senate when discussing the bill that change reporting has increased the error rate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP program, which the DHS says in fiscal 2020 was 9.23 percent (federal law allows a maximum error rate of 6 percent).
“Instead of saving the state money, which is what we were trying to do when we made this change, this reporting actually created an insurmountable administrative burden on the agency and could begin to have us losing quite a bit of money that we either replenish ourselves or the folks wouldn’t get the benefit,” Fillingane said on the Senate floor.
This percentage is either those eligible for benefits who were denied or those who are ineligible but still receive benefits.
The DHS also says that 70 percent of the errors in the program were the direct result of clients failing to report complete and correct information to the agency under the change reporting guidelines.
The legislation passed by a 44-5 margin on February 4. The next deadline the bill will face is March 2, when committees must report on bills passed by the opposite chamber.
The bill has a reverse repealer on it, a legislative tactic that requires it to receive further work from lawmakers before it can make it to Gov. Tate Reeves’ desk for a signature.
Officials from the DHS say that the failing to change the law would result in the state incurring at least $196 million in federal fines next year for SNAP.
Mississippi is the only state to use change reporting exclusively, while 25 states use a combination of both simplified and change reporting. Twenty six states, including Alabama and Louisiana, use only simplified reporting.
Moving from change reporting to a simplified reporting model would stymie a large component of legislation passed in 2017, the Act to Restore Hope Opportunity and Prosperity for Everyone (HOPE), which mandated change reporting for the state’s welfare system.
“This bill is one page that changes an awful lot,” McDaniel said. “In 2017, we worked with Gov. Phil Bryant to improve the system and root out waste, fraud and abuse. How do you find waste, fraud and abuse when you cover your eyes and don’t attempt to find the fraud, waste and abuse?
“The error rate will drop because we won’t be able to catch it. The error rate isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We’re trying to find problems in the system. When the rate goes up, that shows the system is working.”
McDaniel said that going from change to simplified reporting would also grow the welfare rolls, something that Fillingane even admitted on the Senate floor was possible if his legislation was implemented.
McDaniel also said that transitioning back to simplified reporting would require benefit recipients to anticipate when they’re exceeding the 130 percent of the federal poverty line when it comes to benefit eligibility.
The 2017 HOPE Act was the largest reform to the state’s welfare system in decades and was designed to restore welfare-to-work reforms that were passed in the 1990s by the Clinton Administration. The Federal Welfare Reform Act was signed into law in 1996 and transitioned a permanent entitlement program into the Temporary Aid to Needy Families in addition to establishing work requirements for SNAP.
Scottt Centorino is a senior fellow from the Foundation for Government Accountability, a right-leaning policy group that focuses on welfare and health care reform at the state and federal level. He says if lawmakers allow the DHS to transition from change to simplified reporting, a critical accountability safeguard for preventing the ineligible from receiving benefits will be removed from the law.
“There's nothing in change reporting that hurts, or takes benefits away from people who are eligible, it's the exact opposite,” Centorino said. “There's no better way to protect the eligible than to keep the program secure and protected for them. And that means either removing the ineligible or getting the right amount to the right people.”
The FGA said in a 2019 report that restoring work requirements for able-bodied, childless adults decreased program enrollment in the TANF program and saved $93 million for taxpayers.
The error rate in Mississippi's SNAP program has already cost the state money. Last year, the state had to pay back $5 million to the federal government over its administration of SNAP over undeserved bonuses.
States can receive bonuses from the federal government for low error rates in addition to fines for exceeding the maximum allowable error rate of 6 percent.
From 2011 to 2017, the state employed the services of Julie Osnes, a quality control consultant, to lower the error rate on SNAP eligibility and benefits calculations. Taxpayers paid $463,000 for her services.
Osnes’ recommendations resulted in DHS submitting false quality control numbers and other information to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP (once known as the food stamp program). Mississippi wasn't the only state caught in the scheme, as six other states were forced to pay $41 million in fines after using Osnes' recommendations.