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HELENA — A proposal to make it harder to receive federal food assistance heard testimony from more than 20 opponents and objection from several committee members on Monday.

One of the requirements to qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, is to have a gross household income at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. House Bill 361, carried by Tom Burnett, R-Belgrade, would change that guideline to 130 percent of the federal poverty level. The bill would also implement an asset test to disqualify anyone with resources totaling $5,000 or more.

The SNAP program is jointly operated with money coming from the federal government and states setting eligibility requirements and managing the program.

Approximately 15,000 people in 5,700 households would lose access to SNAP based on the new guidelines.

After a woman gave tearful testimony about depending on SNAP to use the rest of her income to provide safe shelter and adequate clothes for her children, both Democratic and Republican members of the committee repeatedly asked Burnett why he was introducing HB361.

Burnett avoided directly answering the question and said he understood the legislation had consequences. Rep. Tom Jacobson, D-Great Falls, asked Burnett to elaborate on what those consequences are so he could understand the impact on Montana families.

“I wouldn’t elaborate. I think your question presumes an answer,” Burnett said. “I’m not going to paint a picture.”

Chair Kirk Wagoner, R-Montana City, and Rep. Ellie Hill, D-Missoula, also asked why Burnett wanted 15,000 Montanans to be disqualified from SNAP.

“You want us in this committee to get them off SNAP for a reason you’re not willing to disclose, but it will also cost the state more money,” Hill said.

In Montana, 120,000 people use the SNAP program in grocery stores and farmers markets. Food bank representatives said they would be unable to support the people who lost access to SNAP and several opponents said those unable to work, such as children and the elderly, would be disproportionately affected.

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Minkie Medora, a dietician on the board of directors for the Montana Food Bank Network, said more Montanans would experience hunger if the legislation passes.

“SNAP is the single most important program in the state for fighting hunger,” she said. Opponents said the asset requirement would disqualify families who had a car to get to work or safely transport their children if it was valued at $5,000. It would also punish families who had saved money in case of an emergency.

Jamie Palagi, with the Department of Health and Human Services, said the legislation would require the agency to hire more people to determine eligibility and update their computer system. The fiscal note estimates HB361 would cost the state approximately $1 million over the biennium.

In closing, Burnett said he would be open to allow one vehicle to not count against a family when evaluating their assets.

No one testified in support of the bill.

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