Austin American-Statesman, May 6, 2008: Private firms cleared to help Texans applying for food stamps

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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

WASHINGTON A move in Congress to limit the role of private firms in doling out food stamps is dead for now, allowing Texas to move forward with its privatization plans.

U.S. House and Senate negotiators voted late last week against including a privatization ban in a $300 billion farm bill that lawmakers hope to finish this week. The ban would have prevented states from allowing employees of private companies to interact with people who are applying for food stamps or to decide someone’s eligibility.

The House included the ban in a farm bill last year in response to problems in Texas, where some families were improperly denied food stamps, Medicaid and cash assistance during a 2006 privatization test in the Austin area.

But the Senate did not put the ban in its version of the farm legislation, and negotiators from the two chambers voted to keep it out of the final bill.

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., cast the deciding vote among negotiators against the ban. He opposes privatization but wanted to save the larger farm legislation from a White House veto, Conrad spokesman Sean Neary said.

The White House announced its disapproval of the privatization ban last year, saying the Bush administration carefully oversees such state efforts.

Bush still contends the farm bill is too stuffed with subsidies, but Democratic negotiators hope there will be enough support for the legislation to override him.

Last year, Texas canceled what was originally a five-year, $899 million contract with Accenture LLP to run call centers enrolling people in services. But the state did not altogether abandon its plan for private call centers, which state officials say can save money and give Texans more ways to apply for services, instead of just in person.

Under the Texas’ plan, state workers would continue to have the final say on who is eligible for food stamps, but a private company would answer applicants’ questions about the status of their cases.

The privatization ban in Congress would have barred that kind of contact.

In the short term, a private company now answers some application questions.

“After the multi-million dollar failed privatization experiment on the poor in Texas, one would think that President Bush would have learned something from Gov. (Rick) Perry’s misadventure,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin.; (202) 887-8329

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