By the closest of voice votes the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee rejected legislation from one of its own.
House Bill 1035 by state Rep. Mary Bentley (R-Perryville) would have prohibited the expenditure of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program dollars on soda, candy, chips and other junk foods.
The committee is comprised of eight members — six Republicans and Eddie Cheatham (D-Crossett) and Stephanie Flowers (D-Pine Bluff). The voice vote was so close that chair Cecile Bledsoe (R-Rogers) hesitated before calling it for the nays.
Afterward, Bentley chalked it up to one thing.
"Lobbyists' pressure. For sure. That's obviously why the Farm Bill runs into any pressure whenever anybody tries to do anything to limit — it's big money, it's huge money, it's $80 billion a year. I think I'm going to ask our Washington delegation [of congressmen] to see what they can do about it nationally."
Bentley initially said her bill was about the health of the state’s most vulnerable, but under scrutiny, particularly from Pine Bluff Democratic Senator Stephanie Flowers, Bentley said lawmakers should protect taxpayers' interests, the ones funding food stamps.
"I want to bring up an aspect of — this is taxpayers' dollars that we're using. So I think when when we're doing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, we can take tax dollars and say, we don't really need candy and soda purchased. Because folks are getting up everyday, I have my employees who get up every day and work eight hours, stand on their feet, run a machine, so they can provide tax dollars to give to folks, and I don't think it's too much to ask. We just want to limit the soft drinks and candy."
What might have initially been paper checks or promissory notes are now Electronic Benefit Transfer, or EBT, cards, and House Bill 1035 would have disqualified soda, candy, chips and other junk foods from purchase. It also would have required additional spending from grocers, convenience marts and other food suppliers to invest in technology and/or man hours to accomodate the restrictions.
Sonja Hubbard is CEO of EZ Mart, and she said that each time a state enacts such regulations on interstate businesses, a company has to comply in one place and not in another. Charlie Spakes represents the Arkansas Retail Grocers Association. The average food stamp recipient spends about twice the benefit on food and supplies, he said, so every time a restriction is enacted, folks simply move something from the food stamp side to the cash side.
A representative from Edward's Food Stores as well as the Arkansas Beverage Association also opposed the bill before the committee.
Sen. Scott Flippo (R-Bull Shoals) was Bentley's biggest supporter, asking pointed questions of each of the food industry lobbyists.
If food stamp recipients couldn't buy junk food, he asked Edwards' representative Paul Rowton, "would they not buy broccoli, and zucchini, and trout?"
"We would rather they spend money on that," Rowton said.
Fresh foods are typically more expensive and a loss-leader because of their perishability.
Bentley said she wouldn’t reintroduce the bill this session. Instead, she said, she’s going to reach out to Arkansas’s congressional delegation and see if she can’t affect her changes nationally. After all, it’s a new administration with a more common sense approach, she said.
This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media, a statewide journalism collaboration among public media organizations. Arkansas Public Media reporting is funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK and from members of the public. You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State News with Context.