- Associated Press - Thursday, February 16, 2017

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska residents with major or multiple felony drug convictions could qualify for federal food assistance under a bill that would repeal the current lifetime ban.

Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln said Thursday that his proposal would help recently released prisoners return to society and reduce their odds of reoffending.

“This bill removes a barrier to successful reintegration while also reducing hunger for individuals and their families that are affected,” Morfeld said in testimony to the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.

If it passes, Nebraska would join 18 other states that have opted out of a federal ban for drug offenders. Neighboring Iowa, Kansas and South Dakota have already lifted their bans, Morfeld said.

Nebraska prohibits people from collecting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits if they were convicted of three felony drug possession charges or one felony distribution charge.

Morfeld said the bill would ultimately save the state money because the benefit is federally funded and cheaper than incarcerating someone who commits a new crime.

Incarcerating an inmate in Nebraska costs the state an average of nearly $36,000 a year, while providing with SNAP benefits costs an average of $258 monthly for working households. On average, new enrollees spend about a year in the program.

The Department of Health and Human Services opposes the measure, arguing that the prospect of losing SNAP benefits encourages drug users to seek treatment. Removing all restrictions could also allow those who are actively using drugs to qualify, said Doug Weinberg, director of the department’s Children and Family Services Division.

“The department cannot support a bill with the potential consequences of using tax dollars to support those who choose to sell and distribute addictive drugs to the children and families in our communities,” he said.

Some lawmakers noted that, if convicted of selling drugs again, a SNAP recipient would likely go back to prison.

Advocates for low-income residents said the current policy punishes families with parents who are affected by the ban, because they collectively wouldn’t receive as much in food assistance.

“There are many unintended victims of Nebraska’s SNAP ban,” said Ken Smith, an attorney with the group Nebraska Appleseed.

Nebraska denied food assistance to an average of 649 annually between 2015 and 2016, according to the department.

Lawmakers advanced a similar bill last year, but it was defeated by a conservative filibuster during second-round floor debate. Morfeld said he is working on a compromise with one of the leading conservative opponents.


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