WASHINGTON -- Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) is putting vulnerable people in his state at risk with his food stamp crusade, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture said Wednesday.
In a recent letter to the Obama administration, LePage said that if the federal government won't let him stop Mainers from using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program debit cards to buy candy and soda, then the state will wash its hands of the SNAP program altogether and let the federal government deal with it.
USDA spokesman Matt Herrick says the agency can't just step in and do the state's job of distributing the federal benefit to low-income individuals and families.
"We don't have the authority or the funding to administer SNAP at the state level," Herrick told The Huffington Post.
In other words, if the state government won't provide nutrition assistance in Maine, no one will. Such a situation would be unprecedented.
"So what this means in real terms, for real-world people, is that children suffer, they don't have adequate nutrition," Herrick said. "There are about 100,000 families in Maine who depend on the program, and they're no different than anyone else, and they shouldn't be penalized or threatened with greater hardship."
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said said it's "laughable" that the Obama administration doesn't have the resources to run its own program.
There are about 100,000 families in Maine who depend on the program, and they're no different than anyone else, and they shouldn't be penalized or threatened with greater hardship. USDA spokesman Matt Herrick
Roughly 44 million Americans get SNAP benefits averaging $125 per month. Distributed on debit cards, the benefits can be used to purchase any food product that isn't alcohol or a prepared meal.
Food stamp recipients' occasional tendency to use their benefits to buy certain things that people generally enjoy -- such as steak, soda or candy -- has riled Republicans ever since Ronald Reagan complained about a "strapping young buck" buying a steak in the 1970s, back when benefits came on actual stamps.
In his letter to the USDA, LePage continued this rich tradition, saying the Obama administration "looks the other way as billions of taxpayer dollars finance a steady diet of Mars bars and Mountain Dew."
Last year, citing widespread public obesity, Maine requested a waiver from federal rules that prevent states from tinkering with the program parameters so the state could restrict candy and soda. This month, the USDA told the state it lacked an adequate control group to measure the outcome of the proposed soda ban for SNAP recipients.
"Since the restriction would be implemented statewide, the study design does not have a counterfactual to show what would have happened in the absence of the restriction," the USDA's letter said.
Herrick stressed that the agency hasn't denied Maine's request outright, but has simply requested more information.
LePage clearly doesn't see it that way.
"The Obama Administration’s decision to deny Maine is unreasonable," Bennett said.