By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- The Legislature's budget committee on Tuesday approved Gov. Scott Walker's proposal requiring that able-bodied adults on Wisconsin's food stamps program to spend at least 20 hours a week working or getting trained for a job.
Democrats, who voted unanimously against it, called the move a mean-spirited attack on poor people. Republicans, who hold a 12-4 majority on the committee, all supported it as a way to help make people on the program become more self-sufficient.
Those who don't meet the work requirement would be limited to three months of benefits over three years. The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates that half of the childless, able-bodied adults on the program between the ages of 18 and 50 who would be subject to the work requirement would not meet it. That is 31,300 out of 62,700.
"It is really one of the most mean-spirited things that I have seen come through here," said Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine. "It's part of a trend that is really disturbing."
Democrats said the vote was particularly galling given that it came on the same day that Walker was at a fundraiser in New York City at a restaurant with expensive offerings such as three different choices of caviar, including one that goes for $125 an ounce.
"We're better than this," Mason said. "We're a state that believes in a safety net. We're a state that believes in empowering people."
But Republican Sen. Glenn Grothman, of West Bend, praised the proposal as one of the best things Walker has ever put forward.
"The biggest problem we have in this state and country is we have more and more people adopting the welfare lifestyle," he said. "We had better do something like this and a lot more."
And Rep. John Nygren, the Republican co-chair of the committee, said he believed most people would support the requirement.
Walker's spokesman Tom Evenson defended the FoodShare proposal.
"Gov. Walker's budget is focused on moving people from government dependence to independence, and this reform gives able-bodied adults who receive FoodShare benefits the opportunity to develop their skills and prepare for the workforce," Evenson said in a statement.
About 857,000 people, 15 percent of the state's population, are in the program, but the majority would not be subject to the work requirement. It would not apply to anyone under 18 or over 50; anyone physically or mentally unfit for employment; pregnant women; parents who have a child in their home under age 18; or caretakers of a child who is 6-years-old or younger.
To qualify for FoodShare benefits, the most a single person can earn is $22,980. Two people can earn up to $31,020 and still qualify.
Last year nearly $1.2 billion in benefits were handed out under the program. If 31,300 leave the program as the Fiscal Bureau estimates, Wisconsin would receive about $72 million a year less in food stamps benefits.
The federal food stamps program has a work provision but Wisconsin has waived it since 2002. The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau says five states impose the work requirement and six others have it in portions of their states.
However, the federal government does not allow states to impose the requirement without also providing job training. The Fiscal Bureau said implementing the program would cost nearly $36 million over two years, with 36 new positions added, to establish employment and training programs in each county and to track compliance.
The proposal comes as the Legislature is also considering other FoodShare proposals, including restricting the amount of junk food that recipients can purchase and imposing new penalties for those who illegally traffic their benefits.
The Joint Finance Committee is in the process of making changes to Walker's budget proposal. It is expected to complete its work over the next two weeks. The budget must clear the state Senate and Assembly, both controlled by Republicans, and be signed by Walker before taking effect.