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Massachusetts Becomes 8th State To Offset Food Stamp Cuts

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WASHINGTON -- Massachusetts on Tuesday became the eighth state to announce new measures to protect food stamp beneficiaries from cuts recently approved by Congress.

The cuts target state practices that have allowed residents with as little as $1 per month in federal heating assistance to qualify automatically for higher food stamp benefits. The new farm bill law sets the minimum qualification in heating aid at $20 for low-income households.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that changes to the so-called heat-and-eat scheme would save the federal government about $8 billion, or about 1 percent of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program spending. Stricter food stamp reforms, such as work requirements, were stripped from the farm bill and replaced with limited pilot programs.

Under Gov. Deval Patrick's (D) proposal, Massachusetts will provide at least $20 in heating assistance to the 163,000 families that get a boost from the link between the programs.

''Reversing the cuts from the farm bill is a major step in helping Massachusetts families work toward economic stability,'' John Polanowicz, state secretary of Health and Human Services, said in a statement Tuesday.

The Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development handles the federal Low Income Heating Assistance Program in the state, and will use roughly $3 million in federal funds to preserve $142 million worth of additional SNAP aid.

Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Montana have approved similar strategies to offset federal food stamp cuts.

The state moves have been controversial with federal lawmakers, who have suggested they might intervene to protect the savings.

''Since the passage of the farm bill, states have found ways to cheat once again on signing up people for food stamps,'' House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters in February. "And so I would hope that the House would act to try to stop this cheating and this fraud from continuing."

Despite Boehner's objections, it's not clear that recent state actions are undoing the farm bill's budget savings. House Agriculture Committee staff say the CBO expected some states to increase heating assistance checks to offset the food stamp cuts, which would reduce benefits by an average of $90 for as many as 800,000 recipients.

(The CBO previously estimated that completely severing the link between the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and food stamps would save $11 billion over 10 years, more than the $8 billion under the bill that became law.)

No hearings are scheduled yet, but agriculture committee spokeswoman Tamara Hinton told HuffPost that lawmakers are keeping an eye on things.

"It is premature to discuss specifics, but the committee will continue to be aggressive with its oversight and legislative agenda as it relates to SNAP," Hinton said. "This will include a review of LIHEAP, work pilot and the other reforms in the‎ farm bill. Where possible, we will coordinate our efforts with other committees as they review these issues, as well."

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) rejected Boehner’s claims in a press release Tuesday, defending the governor for "stepping up" for Massachusetts' poorest residents.

"Despite what Speaker Boehner said last week (ironically, on the same day he invited Pope Francis to address a joint session of Congress), this effort is not 'fraud' or 'cheating' -- it's an effort by states like Massachusetts to provide food to hungry families," McGovern said.

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