JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — A divided Missouri Senate narrowly passed legislation Thursday that could allow thousands of elderly, disabled and homeless residents to spend government food stamp benefits at restaurants — something currently allowed in only a handful of states.
The legislation revealed deep divisions within the Republican-led chamber, where most GOP members voted against what they described as an “expansion of the welfare state” even as Republican leaders joined with Democrats to support it.
The measure passed 18-15, receiving the bare minimum to advance to the House with just two weeks remaining in the legislative session.
Low-income residents receiving aid from the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, informally known as food stamps, generally must get food at retail locations, such as grocery and convenience stores. But the federal government allows states to enact policies authorizing elderly, disabled and homeless residents to buy food at restaurants that agree to sell meals at lower prices.
Six states currently allow food stamps to be used at restaurants in at least some locations — Arizona, California, Maryland, Michigan, Rhode Island and Virginia, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Illinois is slated to add the restaurant option this spring.
The Missouri legislation is projected to allow more than 182,000 households with senior, disabled or homeless members to use their food stamps at restaurants, according to an analysis by the legislative research office.
Some Republicans, particularly those in the conservative caucus, claimed their party leaders were were violating a core GOP campaign pledge by supporting the legislation and encouraging low-income residents to squander their benefits.
“This is the expansion of the welfare state,” said Republican state Sen. Rick Brattin, who is running for Congress this year.
“This program is already out of control, it's prone to fraud and it encourages people to eat in an unhealthy way,” added state Sen. Bob Onder, another member of the Republicans' conservative caucus.
But other Republicans pushed back against those assertions, noting the bill doesn't increase the overall cost of the program but rather offers options for hot meals for people in need. Those who are disabled or elderly might not be able to cook food, and people who are homeless don't have either refrigerators to store food or kitchens to prepare it, said Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer.
“There is not even an iota of expansion of benefits,” said Luetkemeyer, the Republican whip responsible for rallying votes.
The bill passed with the support of all 10 Democrats and eight Republicans, including Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, Assistant Majority Leader Bill White and Luetkemeyer. It was opposed by 15 Republicans.
David A. Lieb, The Associated Press