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More than $700 million in food stamp funding for New York State hangs in the balance this week, as federal lawmakers negotiate the federal farm bill. Major reforms like restoring benefits to legal immigrants, cutting red tape and increasing the amount a family can budget for housing are all on the table in Washington, as a committee of legislators seeks to reconcile competing House and Senate legislation.

Although it hasn’t received nearly as much attention as this year’s welfare reform debate, the food stamp program is up for reauthorization for the first time since 1996. The House passed a version of the bill in October, the Senate in February, and a compromise bill is expected before Congress breaks for Easter on March 22.

The biggest item of contention: Whether to make food stamps more accessible to low-income families, including legal immigrants. Last year, an estimated 43 percent of households eligible for food stamps received them nationwide, down from 57 percent in 1994.

The Senate legislation calls for adding $8.9 billion to the food subsidy program over the next decade–$1.2 billion for New York–while the House bill only allocates $3.6 billion ($467 million of it for New York), according to estimates from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The biggest funding boost for the Empire State would come if the final farm bill includes the Senate’s proposal to restore food stamps for legal immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for at least five years. That proposal is the most likely reform to pass, observers say, since it has the support of President George W. Bush and former Republican congressman Newt Gingrich. And the effects would be great: Since Congress banned food stamps for many legal immigrants in 1996, the number of immigrants receiving such benefits dropped from 1.9 million to 750,000, according to the federal Department of Agriculture.

To make food stamps more accessible, the Senate bill also attempts to streamline the program’s tortuous certification process: CBPP analysts say it takes an average of five hours spread over three caseworker visits to apply for the subsidies. “The Senate bill cleans up those petty rules that choke the program with red tape,” said Stacy Dean of CBPP, pointing to current application questions like, “How often does your family sell plasma each month?” “Unfortunately,” she said, “the House bill doesn’t.”

The one other big item on the table: the food stamp program’s shelter allowance cap. Currently, when caseworkers calculate how much an applicant can receive in food stamps based on monthly expenses, they cannot consider a rent higher than $350. “That’s not realistic in most of the country, let alone New York,” said Carlos Rodriguez, a food stamp expert with the Community Food Resource Center. The Senate is calling for eliminating that cap.

Both bills call for providing families that move from welfare to work with six months of transitional food stamps, a policy that New York State recently enacted on its own.

“If implemented, these reforms go a long way towards boosting participation,” Rodriguez said. “This week could be a big week for addressing the problem of hunger.”

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