MONTPELIER -- Some low-income Vermonters will still be forced to repay the federal government for state errors with the food stamp program, after a bill asking the state to pick up that tab failed this session.
The problem dates back to last year, when the feds sanctioned Vermont for miscalculating the amount of money it awarded to food stamp recipients, in many cases giving people too much.
The federal government, which pays for food stamps, fined the state $500,000 and asked those Vermonters who were victims of the errors to pay back the extra.
Some lawmakers, however, felt those low-income residents should not be asked to pay for an error that was not their fault.
The House this year tried to pass a bill that would require the state to repay the feds, rather than the food stamp recipients themselves, but the bill failed, infuriating legislators who spent weeks crafting it.
"The vast majority of Vermonters who rely on 3SquaresVT are children, elders and people with disability," said state Rep. Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington. "They're not squirreling away their food stamps."
Pugh's committee, House Human Services, approved the bill, but it stalled in the House Appropriations Committee for several reasons.
First was the cost. It would have cost between $300,000 and $650,000, lawmakers said, to repay the government. Second, Gov. Peter Shumlin's administration opposed the bill, saying it would set a bad precedent.
"If Social Security makes a mistake, or the IRS, they don't let you keep it. This is in keeping with fed government programs," said David Yacovone, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, which administers food stamps.
"I think it's precedent-setting, and I think in the scheme of all of the challenges we have, I'd rather spend state resources helping people in other ways," Yacovone said.
Meanwhile, the administration did succeed in securing several fixes to the repayment plan from the federal government, independent of the bill (H.620).
The federal government agreed to cut in half the amount recipients are paying back. And people who owe less than $600 no longer have to pay the money back at all. Previously that threshold was $400.
During testimony about the bill before Pugh's committee, DCF provided data about error rates and what the department is doing to fix them. While calculations are far from complete, the error rate this year (fiscal year 2014) appears to be around 4 percent, according to DCF. Federal penalties kick in when the rate exceeds 6 percent.
The amount of extra food stamp benefits, known in Vermont as 3SquaresVT, was an average of $1,095 in fiscal year 2011 and $983 in FY12, according to DCF. There were 175 errors in FY11, up from 85 the year before.
Overall, the number of people on food stamps in Vermont has grown from 19,928 in fiscal year 2000 to 48,000 in fiscal year 2012, according to DCF.
There have been errors in the past, too, though not to the same degree. In the early 2000s errors amounted to around $50,000 per year, according to DCF. Only in FY11 did that amount spike, to $191,554.
Errors can occur several ways. Sometimes the state does not promptly process a change in circumstances, such as a decrease in someone's rent that would affect the amount of food stamps benefits they receive.
Advocacy groups for low-income Vermonters pushed hard for the error rates bill to pass.
"Five dollars a month might not sound like much to you or I, but it's one less gallon of milk per month to a family," said Marissa Parisi, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont.
The intangible burdens - financial and emotional stress - are much harder to quantify, she said.
"It just knocks them back from getting to the point where they can support themselves," she said.
Parisi applauded the steps DCF has taken this year to cut down on errors, and for the steps the administration took with the federal government to ease the burden for those in the process of repayment.
DCF began many types of "intensive training" for more than 170 staff members and holds several types of monthly and quarterly meetings to discuss the errors. It also tracks workers' performance, to identify people who frequently cause errors.
Food stamps workers now have "desk aids" to help them make correct calculations when processing forms. District offices also complete "corrective action plans," based on errors identified by quality control supervisors.