Republicans push for Food Share trafficking law at hearing - WQOW TV: Eau Claire, WI NEWS18 News, Weather, and Sports

Republicans push for Food Share trafficking law at public hearing

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MADISON (WKOW) -- Republican lawmakers made their case for criminalizing the trafficking of state Food Share benefits at the Capitol Tuesday.

But Democrats question their motives and whether or not a new law is needed.

Trafficking food stamps, or Food Share Quest Cards as they're known in Wisconsin, is already illegal under federal law.

But Republicans say it needs to be made illegal here or it will continue to go unpunished.

Fraud in the state's Food Share program is well documented.  In 2012, the Legislative Audit Bureau published a report showing 450 state prison inmates and close to 1,200 fugitives or parole violators were still getting benefits.

"There are incidents of fraud in this program again and again," said Rep. Samantha Kerkman (R-Powers Lake), the bill's co-author.

But the bill presented by Rep. Kerkman and Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee does not address those issues.

"We're very concerned that there have been many stories about food stamps being trafficked and exchanged for cash," said Sen. Darling.
    
Those "stories" are just that, as Rep. Kerkman and Sen. Darling both cited TV and print reports on Food Share fraud in the Milwaukee area as piquing their interest in the subject.

"With all due respect to the media, to come up with a piece of legislation responding to what a TV station or radio station in Milwaukee had to say, you know, I think we really need gotta slow things down a little bit," said Sen. Jon Erpenbach (R-Middleton).

Sen. Erpenbach says the degree of Food Share trafficking in the state is really an unknown and he questions if it's worth a new law that will impose harsh penalties.

"Up to 10 years in prison.  If we actually go through with this, its gonna cost some money.  So I'd like to see how much its actually gonna cost us to do that," said Sen. Erpenbach. 

But the bill's authors say they have heard enough to know a new state law is needed.

"We are codifying the federal rules so that the definition of trafficking will be in statutes and that the DA's and others will have the right then and the ability, the power to prosecute, and that's what the purpose of this bill is," said Sen. Darling.

The cost of prosecution and incarceration could be key as to whether or not this bill moves forward, but a fiscal estimate of the bill from the Department of Administration called the long-term costs indeterminable.

The bill next moves to an executive session vote in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.

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