COLUMBUS -- Needy residents would have their pictures added to the cards they use to buy groceries through the federal food stamp program, under legislation being offered by Republicans in the state legislature.
The move, backers say, would help stop some of the fraudulent use of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Electronic Benefit Transfer cards, with crooks potentially less willing to attempt to gain cash or merchandise using cards with someone else's photograph.
"Stealing is bad," said Sen. Matt Huffman (R-Lima), primary sponsor of the bill. "Stealing from poor people who need government assistance is worse. And when we have folks sometimes who are willingly participating in the process maybe exchanging 50 cents on the dollar for cash or for drugs or for other things who are supposed to be using these cards for something else, we have a system that is collapsing in many ways."
Huffman is offering the legislation in the Ohio Senate; Rep. Tim Schaffer (R-Lancaster) is carrying a companion bill in the Ohio House.
The proposed law changes have the backing of Republican state Auditor Dave Yost, who traveled to Washington, D.C., last year to offer testimony to the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture on the issue. An audit conducted by his office identified potential instances of fraud or weaknesses in the SNAP program.
Under the legislation announced Jan. 8, photos of those eligible for food benefits would be added to the front of the cards they use at retailers.
Stores would not necessarily be allowed to block sales from those with someone else's card. Instead, a phone number and website address would be included on the back of those cards, providing a place for retailers to report questionable transactions.
Yost said simply adding the pictures would be a deterrent -- the former county prosecutor recounted that officers often find benefits cards during drug busts.
"We believe that this will be helpful to avoid trafficking in cards," Yost said. "We know that there's trafficking in food benefits that happens around the state, and a photograph is a simple, straightforward way to deter that."
He added, "As the auditor, I want to protect against fraud, I want to see tax dollars going where they ought to go As a citizen and a member of the law enforcement community, I'm interested in deterring drug trafficking But the most important reason to do this is because the legitimacy of the program is undermined by fraud."
The legislation would include exemptions for residents age 60 or older, those who are disabled, victims of domestic violence or residents who have religious objections to be photographed.
Similar photo requirements are already in place in a couple of other states, with a handful of others considering enacting comparable laws.
The legislation has the support of the Republican head of the Ohio Senate, President Larry Obhof (R-Medina).
"SNAP serves a very valuable function," he said, adding, "We want those benefits going to the people that they're intended for and ensuring that the people who need help get it."
Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks, said she still needed to review the details of the legislation.
The SNAP benefits, commonly known as food stamps, are 100 percent covered by federal funding, she said.
"There is no other public benefit," she said. "It is the first line of defense against hunger in our state and our nation, and anything that we can do to ensure that the integrity of the program is protected, then we are all in on that."
She added, "Food stamp fraud or abuse has a very stiff penalty. The federal penalty is up to 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000, so there is a lot of enforcement behind this."
Marc Kovac covers the Ohio Statehouse for Gatehouse Media. Email him at email@example.com or on Twitter at OhioCapitalBlog.