The House has voted to cut nearly $4 billion a year from food stamps, a 5 percent reduction to the nation's main feeding program used by more than 1 in 7 Americans.
The 217-210 vote was a win for conservatives after Democrats united in opposition and some GOP moderates said the cut was too high.
The bill's savings would be achieved by allowing states to put broad new work requirements in place for many food stamp recipients and to test applicants for drugs. The bill also would end government waivers that have allowed able-bodied adults without dependents to receive food stamps indefinitely.
Food stamps' cost has more than doubled in the last five years as the economy struggled through the Great Recession.
Bills that would deny unemployment benefits to people who refuse to take drug tests required by employers and that would mandate community service for people receiving public assistance were approved in the state Senate and a House committee Wednesday.
The drug-testing bill, which passed the House Commerce Committee on a 12-4 vote with three Democrats passing on the issue, would deny unemployment benefits for people who either refused to take a drug test required by an employer or tested positive.
The community service bill, which passed the Senate on a 27-9 vote, would require people receiving food stamps or other welfare benefits to participate in community service or other work-related activities in order to be eligible for the assistance.
Republicans called the bills common sense.
“There is absolutely nothing wrong with requiring folks to have a little skin in the game,” said Sen. Joe Hune, R-Hamburg Township. “All they have to do is a little community service to get their benefits.”
But Democrats said the GOP was targeting low-income people for political purposes leading into the 2014 election season, as Republicans continued to push bills that the party’s conservative base would support.
The bills continue a trend that began earlier this year with proposed legislation that targets public assistance recipients for suspicion-based drug testing, and a proposal that allows benefits to be denied if a child is truant from school. Those bills have passed the House and await action in the Senate.
“Wholesale drug testing without suspicion is simply illegal,” said Shelli Weisberg, spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union in Michigan. “If we’re going down the road of drug testing for people who receive benefits, then we better start drug testing legislators.”
State Rep. Jon Switalski, D-Warren, offered an amendment to the drug-testing bill that would do that, but it failed.
“If the majority feels that drug testing for people on the public dole is good policy, then it’s clearly in the interest of good public policy to test all of us on the public dole,” he said. “But this is a bill about the elections in 2014 and nothing else.”
Anti-tax activist Bill McMaster noted that the bills don’t take into account Michigan’s support in a 2008 ballot initiative for the use of medical marijuana.
“It’s somewhat mysterious to me that you’re trying to eliminate the will of the people on the medical marijuana front,” he said. “A good number of people are employed successfully who are using medical marijuana.”
Sen. Vincent Gregory, D-Southfield, said it didn’t make sense to make someone — such as a single mother, for example — have to pay child care costs because of state-required community service. He offered an amendment — which ultimately failed — that would require the Department of Human Services to pick up child care costs while parents performed community service.
“We need to give residents a helping hand and not force them to do other things to get assistance from the state,” he said.
The drug-testing bill (HB 4952) now moves to the full House. The community service bill (SB276) moves to the House for consideration.