Friday, May 5, 2017

The Session is Over!

Understanding the Indiana General Assembly’s legislative process is daunting, but we from the Hub’s Advocacy team worked harder than ever to get educated and engage in the political process.  With the help of the League of Women Voters, Feeding Indiana’s Hungry, and the Indiana Institute for Working Families, we learned a lot about how bills are drafted, introduced to a committee, and ultimately passed.  A resource that helped us along is the Indiana Chamber’s How a Bill Becomes a Law: A Description of the Indiana Legislative Process with a Glossary of Terms.  

Before we get into the details, let us tell you what we learned about bill tracking.  This is the process of watching a specific bill as it goes through first reading, into committee action, onto additional readings, into conference, and hopefully signed.  This can be a tedious process, as there was no exact way to know when an action was being taken on a bill besides constantly refreshing the website.  An excellent new tool for us was Ping the People, a website that allows users to get email notification about the bills they are tracking.

A major focus of this long session was to pass the biennial budget.  In addition to that, legislative priorities were placed on infrastructure, education, and opioid addiction prevention.  The Hub tracked the following bills that were focused on the nutritional safety net: SB 9: Supplemental nutrition assistance program and drug convictions, SB 154 Asset limitation for SNAP eligibility, and SB 277 Healthy food initiative program.

Senate Bill 9 would have allowed individuals formerly convicted of a drug related crime to apply for and receive SNAP benefits. The Hub supported this bill because increasing access to public assistance lowers the recidivism rate, and will reduce the number of people in Indiana facing poverty and food insecurity. The bill was voted out of the Senate but then died in the House which means it did not get voted on and cannot be enacted.  Legislators claimed they would rather focus on “treatment and prevention of the opioid crisis”.  We are hopeful that lawmakers will see the connection between a stronger safety net and lasting prevention and that this bill may be proposed in the future.

Senate Bill 154 was introduced to eliminate SNAP asset limits.  Assets are things like retirement accounts, savings and checking accounts, vehicles, and other personal property.  Currently, if someone has more than $2,500 in value in any of these things, they are ineligible for SNAP.  Asset limits force folks to make the hard choice of having assets or receiving assistance.  The current rule creates impossible decisions that only reinforce cycles of poverty and food insecurity.  As introduced in the Senate the bill would have removed the asset limit altogether.  In its next version it moved the asset limit to $10,000.  Unfortunately, the bill was amended in the House to move the asset limit to $5,000.  It does exempt Certificate of Deposits and prepaid funeral expenses.  Individuals must prove their assets.  This bill passed out of the House with votes 97-0, so it was great to see complete support of Hoosiers in need. In the end, even if SB 154 only slightly raises the asset limit, its passage is a step toward cutting some red tape for the most financially vulnerable Hoosiers and continues the conversation of how we address hunger and poverty at the state level.  

Senate Bill 277 was the healthy food initiative program, which would have established a a fund to provide fresh and unprocessed food in underserved areas. This bill died in the House in early March.  Supporters of the bill say they will propose this bill in the future with the goal of attaching money to it to support increased access to healthy food.

The Hub’s wins from this legislative session are that more people will be able to access food because of increased asset limits.  Amanda Nickey, the Hub’s President and CEO and Stephanie Solomon, Director of Education and Outreach were able to testify at the statehouse for the first time and we have widely expanded our advocacy network around the state.  We also launched our Advocacy Working Group which has met once a month and addresses food security, health care, and housing from the perspective of Hub patrons.  

We learned some important lessons this session.  Overall, we were disappointed at the lack of political will to advocate for the basic, everyday needs of people who live in Indiana.  We do not want to lower our expectations of elected officials and instead resolve to advocating the needs of real people and communicating that food is a basic human right.  In the future, we hope to host an elected official for a visit at Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard, continue growing our Advocacy Working Group, and increasing the knowledge and engagement of the Hub community.  

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