- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 8, 2015

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - The idea of funding the federal food stamps program through block grants to the states has failed to gain traction in annual budget fights since the 1990s, but it has not gone away and may get a hearing in a U.S. Senate panel, Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas said.

Roberts, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Nutrition and Forestry Committee and sets its schedule, said Tuesday that the idea has support among conservatives and governors who would prefer to administer their own state-level food stamps programs. He said the idea is in the “talking phase,” although it’s unlikely it would become law under President Barack Obama.

“I’m sure in talking to my colleagues in favor of this kind of approach that we’ll have hearings on it, we just want to make sure that the quality of the program does not suffer,” Roberts said, while touring the Washburn Rural High School cafeteria outside Topeka.

Sarah Little, a spokeswoman for Roberts, said later that the issue is low on the priority list and would require either changes to the federal budget through the reconciliation process or amendments to the 2014 farm bill, which the senator would be loath to revisit.

In March, a federal agriculture official publicly contradicted Republican Gov. Sam Brownback over the governor’s support for the block grant idea. Roberts said he is generally in favor of more local control, but handing the program over to the states would be problematic.

“The problem with that is you get a hodge-podge with regards to every state has something a little different,” Roberts said. “There’s something to be said for a unified system all across the country.”

Brownback has also been criticized for his overhaul of the school funding system, which scrapped the existing formula for determining state aid to schools and replacing it with fixed grants to school districts based on what they received in the past. Roberts said the approach was reasonable given the complexities of the previous system.

But, Brenda Dietrich, superintendent of USD 437 schools who accompanied Roberts on the tour, criticized the notion that the governor’s plan would help schools by making it easier to spend their funding flexibly.

“When you don’t get any additional dollars the flexibility is kind of a moot point.” Dietrich said. “If you’re broke, does it matter that you’re flexible?”

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