Remember those food stamp cuts that were part of the federal farm bill debate? They were supposed to add up to more than $8 billion in savings. But it turns out many states are finding a way to get around the cuts, in a scenario that many federal lawmakers did not anticipate.
As the bill headed toward its final vote, many Democrats derided the cuts. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., perhaps the chamber's most knowledgeable member on nutrition policy, was among them.
"If this bill passes, thousands of thousands of low income Americans will see their already-meager food benefits shrink," he said.
But it hasn't worked out quite that way because of the state-by-state patchwork of eligibility rules used to determine who can get food stamps, also known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance or SNAP.
A group of 16 states - not including Minnesota -- have a policy that's known as "heat and eat." If someone is eligible to government-subsidized heating assistance, the thinking is they're qualified for SNAP, too. It was common for those states to give out a dollar in heat aid so that people would get food stamps. But the new farm bill raised that threshold to $20 of heating assistance.
At least six states, including New York, Pennsylvania and Montana, plan to give out more heat aid in response. Many of the other states are saying they're thinking hard about that approach, too.
Minnesota U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson is the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee and helped draft this latest farm bill. He said governors such as New York's Andrew Cuomo made a rational decision because it helps them tap into federal money.
"They put up six million bucks, they get 450 [million] back," Peterson said. "Well, why wouldn't you do that?"
Peterson's Republican counterpart, Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, says he's surprised the governors are rejiggering their heating aid. He calls the practice "mining" the US Treasury and vows Congress will investigate if states don't let up.
"If they're going to try to keep mining, then this becomes a live issue again," Lucas said.
Peterson said the option for states to escape the spending cuts is why Democrats were ultimately able to vote for the farm bill, even as Republicans touted cuts to SNAP as a reason to back the bill.
"In my caucus, people kind of see this as a win. So I'm kind of a hero," he said. On the Republican side, "it's a problem."
With the Senate and White House in Democratic hands for now, Peterson said that Republicans will not be able to make the cuts stick.
Jim Weill, the president of the nonprofit Food Research Action Network, said no one should be surprised the heat and eat states would spend more on heat aid to keep their SNAP funds. If they were surprised, "Well then they weren't following the debate and they weren't following what the Congressional Budget Office said and they weren't reading the bill."
If all of the heat and eat states end up taking this path, about 860,000 people who had been set to lose their benefits will end up keeping them - and the projected $8.6 billion in budget savings probably won't materialize.
Weill said lawmakers should understand why governors from both parties were so quick to restore the funding.
"There's true desperation out there among both unemployed people and the working poor, and governors are responding to that and Congress's failure to address that desperation by choosing this option," he said.
Even though these particular cuts don't affect Minnesota, the 550,000 SNAP recipients in the state already saw their benefits drop by an average of $36 a family due to another cut in the program last fall.