State rewarded for food-stamp accuracy
By Patrick Howe
ST. PAUL -- For the fourth time in five years, Minnesota is getting a bonus from the federal government for accurately issuing food stamp benefits.
Eric Bost, an undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, called the state's program a model for others as he presented Gov. Tim Pawlenty a giant check representing the $1.4 million award Friday.
"When you go into an office anywhere in this country, we want to ensure that you receive exactly what you're supposed to receive," Bost said.
About 230,000 people receive food support monthly in Minnesota. The average award is about $80 a month.
In all, the state has received about $17 million in bonus funds over the past five years.
This year's bonus came after state and federal audits found that county workers accurately issued benefits more than 94 percent of the time. That ranked the state 12th best in the country.
Bost said the error rate is not strictly an indication of fraud; some people receive too little in benefits.
South Dakota was the top state, with an accuracy rate of nearly 98 percent.
States that fall below the average national error rate of 8.26 percent can suffer stiff penalties.
U.S. Rep. Gil Gutknecht, a Minnesota Republican and chairman of a House subcommittee that oversees the program, said the policy represents a turnaround from days when the federal government's policy seemed to be "to ensure that no good deed went unpunished."
State Department of Human Services Commissioner Kevin Goodno said 75 percent of the money will go to the counties that administer the program and will be used for staff training and outreach efforts.
Under Gov. Jesse Ventura, the bonus money was used in part to pay for food benefits for legal non-citizens who are not eligible for federal food stamps.
Goodno said the state still hopes to seek federal permission to implement a so-called junk food ban as part of the program. Recipients wouldn't be allowed to use the money for foods the state considers insufficiently nutritious.
He said a state group is being formed to consider the change as a broader push to improve nutrition.
For his part, Bost, said he'd withhold judgment on the idea until he sees a specific waiver request. But he said that "this is an administration that is very committed to ensuring that innovation and creativity is rewarded."