by Milan Simonich, Santa Fe New Mexican
January 24, 2017

Five Democratic state senators banded together Tuesday to block a Republican bill aimed at prohibiting people on food stamps from buying soda, candy and other junk foods.

The Democrats said they appreciated Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, sponsoring the bill to encourage healthy eating habits in hopes of reducing New Mexico’s high rates of obesity and diabetes. But Democrats on the Senate Public Affairs Committee still found flaws in Pirtle’s proposal.

“I’m bothered by this because it’s going after our lowest-income folks,” said Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque. “I don’t support this at all because it focuses on one group of people and implies they’re wasting taxpayers’ money.”

Others who attended the hearing criticized Pirtle’s bill as a slap at poor people receiving food aid.

“It implies that low-income families need to be singled out for food planning,” said Bill Jordan, a lobbyist for the advocacy group New Mexico Voices for Children.

Pirtle, knowing his bill was in trouble, asked the committee members to advance the measure without any recommendation. That proposal failed on a 4-4 vote.

Stewart and the other four Democrats on the committee then voted to table the bill, effectively killing it. Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, initially sided with the three Republicans on the committee in voting to move the bill forward without a recommendation. But Ortiz y Pino shifted his position and joined fellow Democrats in tabling it.

Ortiz y Pino said he has the same concerns as Pirtle about sugar consumption contributing to staggering rates of diabetes and other health problems. Ortiz y Pino is introducing a bill to charge a gross receipts tax on all carbonated drinks as a way to discourage people from buying soda. As it stands, the tax is charged on fountain drinks but not on grocery purchases of soda.

But Pirtle said that measure would not apply to the 448,000 New Mexico residents on the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, typically referred to as food stamps. Food purchased through the program is exempt from taxes.

Pirtle said after the committee hearing that he felt stereotyped by the Democrats. He said their comments suggested that he came across as a bad Republican picking on poor people.

“I don’t want to target one group. Let’s get the conversation started to improve nutrition and health,” he said.

His bill would have allowed recipients of food stamps to purchase meat, fish or poultry, plus all the foods authorized under the federal government’s other nutrition assistance program for women, infants and children. The state would have had to apply for a waiver from the federal government to implement Pirtle’s restrictions on what items could be purchased with food stamps.

Sovereign Hager, an attorney with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, told the committee that no state has succeeded in getting a waiver to restrict what items can be bought with food stamps.

Pirtle described his bill as different from the rest that have been tried because it was built around foods that already are authorized for the government assistance program. They include whole-grain bread, milk, cheese, eggs, fruits and vegetables. Pirtle’s bill would have added meat to that list.

And with President Donald Trump now in office, Pirtle said, the federal government might be more inclined to grant New Mexico a waiver.

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