Senators uphold Nebraska food stamp ban for drug felons

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

By GRANT SCHULTE

Associated Press

Published on March 23, 2016 8:57AM


LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska residents with major or multiple felony drug convictions will remain ineligible for federal food assistance after an effort to repeal the restriction stalled Tuesday in the Legislature.

Conservative opponents defeated the measure with a filibuster during second-round debate.

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

The state denied benefits to 676 applicants last year because of drug felony convictions, and others likely didn’t apply because they knew they would be rejected, according to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

The repeal bill won initial approval earlier this month but continued to face stiff opposition from conservative lawmakers and Gov. Pete Ricketts’ administration. Lawmakers voted 28-15 to force an end to the debate and effectively kill the proposal, five short of what the bill’s supporters needed to bring the proposal to a vote.

Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln, who sponsored the repeal effort, said he may try to revive the proposal in next year’s session. The repeal measure was part of a larger package that would have made changes to Nebraska’s parole system.

“We’re going to keep at it,” Morfeld said after the vote. “This problem’s not going away.”

Morfeld said the state’s current policy creates a barrier for former drug offenders who want to succeed in society and encourages them to re-offend. The law also makes no sense because it applies to drug crimes but not more serious offenses such as sexual assault and murder, he said.

Nebraska and other states fell subject to the federal ban after Congress approved it in 1996, but the federal legislation allowed states to opt out of the requirement.

Opponents of the repeal effort argued Nebraska’s ban punishes only dealers and repeat offenders. Under the law, offenders with one or two felony convictions can still qualify for food assistance if they are participating in an accredited or state licensed substance abuse treatment program.

“By giving food stamps to drug dealers, we’re just enabling them,” said Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion. “If you’re dealing drugs and I’m paying for your food, we’re subsidizing your operation.”

Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte said offenders who don’t qualify for the benefit can still turn to local food pantries for food.

But local providers say the services vary widely throughout the state. Nebraska’s ban hits rural areas especially hard because of a shortage of food pantries, said Sarah Comer, the SNAP outreach manager for the Food Bank of Lincoln.

Comer said she sees people on a daily basis who don’t qualify because of past convictions. Most accredited substance abuse treatment programs are already filled to capacity, leaving applicants with few other options, she said.

Comer said many of the former inmates want to turn their lives around, but many get discouraged when they learn they’re not eligible.

“They feel like they’re getting kicked when they’re already down,” Comer said. “They’re trying to be a part of the community again.”

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The bill is LB910



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