Politics & Government

California GOP lawmakers seek hearing on food stamp fraud efforts

Responding to a request from Republican state senators, Democratic Sen. Mark Leno said Wednesday that he will hold a hearing on problems in the state food stamp program called CalFresh.

Senate Republican leader Bob Huff and and Sen. Bill Emmerson, R-Hemet, sent the request to Leno, chairman of the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee, following a story in The Sacramento Bee last week about the state’s low fraud-detection rate in its CalFresh program.

The Bee reported that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been pushing the state Department of Social Services to step up its fraud enforcement for more than two years. Citing figures in the story, Huff and Emmerson said the state finds food stamp fraud at a rate much lower than the national average, leaving tens of thousands of cases ignored.

The USDA has asked the state to investigate more suspicious food stamp cases red-flagged by the federal agency and adopt procedures that respond to questionable activity, such as frequent replacement of cards used to redeem food stamps.

California counties investigate such fraud, but the effort is coordinated by the state Department of Social Services. Investigators completed 270,000 food stamp fraud inquiries in 2010-11 and found alleged fraud in 14 percent of the cases, according to the USDA. That is the eighth-lowest rate in the country, well below the national 34 percent average.

“I think it is a completely appropriate issue to review,” Leno said Wednesday.

He said he expects to hold a hearing no later than January. Leno, D-San Francisco, also wants to examine why California has the lowest percentage of eligible people receiving food stamps in the nation.

Huff, R-Diamond Bar, and Emmerson wrote in a letter to Leno that problems with fraud enforcement aren’t new, as the California state auditor recommended changes in 2009. They asked Leno to hold a hearing that includes testimony from the Bureau of State Audits, counties that have particularly high or low rates of finding fraud, and district attorneys prosecuting such cases.

Huff and Emmerson wrote that the congressional debate over food stamp cuts has been fueled by concerns about waste and fraud. That debate means Leno should “act quickly to call an oversight hearing by the Senate Budget Committee.”

Leno, however, said he considered the issues of fraud and overall food stamp funding separate and sees no need to expedite a state hearing. He said he wants to have the hearing in advance of next year’s budget proposals, so the state can make funding decisions that may be necessary to address deficiencies in CalFresh.