JEFFERSON CITY _ Missouri government might turn down one of the major grants of power over welfare programs that Congress is considering giving to the states.
As part of its overhaul of the welfare system, Congress is planning to revamp the Food Stamp program. If the congressional changes pass, Missouri could gain more autonomy over the traditionally federal program by choosing lump sum payments, known as block grants, for food assistance.
But the state may turn down the opportunity, according to one of the state's top welfare officials.
Carmen Schulze, director of Family Services at Missouri's Social Services Department, said that after initial review, Missouri would most likely decline the block grant option.
"We would carefully weigh the pros and cons of the block grants and look at what strings are attached, because there are definitely strings," Schulze said.
These "strings" include limiting state flexibility on how food stamp grants could be used, putting a ceiling on the amount designated to administration costs and requiring states to implement "electric benefit transfer" systems, which would issue food stamp benefits through ATM-like cards rather than coupons.
More than 580,000 Missouri residents receive food stamps monthly. The federal government pays the total costs for the food-stamp coupons _ an average of $27 million per month. The state and federal governments split the costs of administering the program.
Under current law, food stamps are treated as open-ended entitlements _ benefits that are granted to anyone who qualifies under federal guidelines.
Since the federal government picks up the total cost, the food program has not been an issue for the state _ unlike the other major welfare programs like Medicaid and Aid to Families with Dependent Children for which the state has to kick in some of its own money.
Under the block grant approach before Congress, if food stamp costs exceeded the federal grant, the state would be required to pay out of its own pocket, shift funds from another program or reduce benefits.
Proponents argue block grants would give states the flexibility of using up to 20 percent of food stamp funds for other welfare programs. In addition, supporters say a food stamp block grant would allow states to more efficiently tailor the federal funds to serve their individual needs.
Block grants also would give states the power to decide who can receive food stamps and the amount they can receive.
However, Amy Tucci, spokeswoman for the American Public Welfare Association, an organization representing public welfare agencies nationwide, said that could mean less food support for those who need it most.
As an alternative to block grants, the congressional plans would allow states to continue the food stamp program as an entitlement funded by the federal government with the funding levels capped.
Because under a capped entitlement states would be guaranteed certain funding levels for food stamps, Schulze said Missouri would probably elect this option.
"Our commitment is to Missouri citizens to provide food support," Schulze said. "After initial review, the capped entitlement seems the better way to ensure that."
The capped entitlement would protect the Food Stamp program by funding it at levels set by the Congressional Budget Office.
Other food stamp issues being debated by the House and Senate include:
* restricting participation in the Food Stamp program by legal aliens;
* implementing stricter work requirements for recipient;
* creating program integrity rules to help eliminate trafficking and fraud.
The Congressional Budget Office predicts food stamp savings at $20.2 billion for the House bill and $13 billion for the Senate bill over the next five years.
Both houses of Congress will soon begin negotiating differences in their proposals.