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NAP eligibility, benefits at risk, says DCCA chief

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THE governor’s senior policy advisor and acting Department of Community and Cultural Affairs Secretary Robert Hunter said  the DCCA Nutrition Assistance Program is still waiting for updates from the office of U.S. Congressman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan on congressional action taken to secure funds to support the current income eligibility and benefit levels.

“We have provided the information necessary to inform the congressman’s request a number of times and also know that the [Food and Nutrition Service] regional office has been in communication with the congressman’s office,"  Hunter said on Thursday.

"Unfortunately, at this eleventh hour, we have not received an update on any proposed or taken congressional action that would see the necessary resources."

Only the U.S. Congress can increase the NAP block grant, transition the Commonwealth into the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or provide additional emergency funds, he said.

“We have received no return response to that correspondence so far," he reiterated.

According to DCCA-NAP, the only information that was relayed verbally to them from the office of Congressman Sablan was that he was looking at additional funding included in the second stimulus package.

"This is a longshot, as the stimulus negotiation efforts died before the last congressional recess, and have not resumed," Hunter said.

"This funding need has been well-known by our congressional office for a long time."

Hunter said after the previous Agricultural or Farm Bill passed without including the CNMI transition to the SNAP, a communication from the congressman stated that he would pursue the necessary funding to maintain the increased income eligibility and benefit levels.

"A disaster award of $25.2 million that was provided last year provided the NAP with the ability to maintain increased income eligibility and benefit levels, but beginning Oct. 1st, if the NAP does not receive additional funding through Congress, it will begin reducing income eligibility and benefit levels," Hunter said.

At current levels, the NAP requires approximately $30 million annually, he added.

"Without the additional congressional funding, the NAP resources will revert to the $12 million block grant received annually —  a substantial reduction.”

Hunter said he hopes that Congressman Sablan is successful in getting the additional funding necessary though Congress.

"We are not sure at this juncture what those efforts are and we hope he’ll apprise the CNMI soon, but many beneficiaries will be directly affected by what happens or doesn’t happen congressionally,” Hunter added.

New information

Asked for comment, the congressman’s office issued the following statement:

 “The congressman did receive a letter from Governor Torres dated Aug. 26 in which the governor says the Commonwealth’s Nutrition Assistance Program will be short $11.5 million in 2021.

“This is new information. The congressman asked for a briefing on NAP funding on March 20, after federal Food and Nutrition Service officials had reconciled accounts with Commonwealth officials. Federal officials reported then the Nutrition Assistance Program had enough funding to last to the end of 2021.

“This made sense. The congressman had added a special $25.2 million grant for NAP in last year’s disaster relief bill and another $620,536 in the Families First Act this February.

“In addition, as Mr. Hunter notes, the congressman succeeded in including $32.5 million for NAP in Section 4031 of the 2014 Agricultural Act. And the Commonwealth still had unspent funds from the Agricultural Act going in to this year.

‘Despite the assurance of adequate funding from federal officials at the March 20 briefing, as a safety measure, Congressman Sablan included $1.2 million more for Marianas NAP in the CARES Act enacted into law on March 27.

“He continued the build-up of funding with $1.822 million specifically set-aside for Marianas NAP in Section 10101 of the HEROES Act, which the Democratic House passed in May. But the Senate and the White House have, so far, refused to agree on this next Covid relief measure.

“On Aug. 6, the federal Food and Nutrition Services again assured the congressman [that] there would $23.2 million available for 2021 from all these various sources and did not predict a shortfall.

“The governor’s letter of Aug. 26, however, now reports the Commonwealth will be short $11.5 million.

“Congressman Sablan immediately asked the Food and Nutrition Service to confirm the accuracy of the governor’s letter. Three days ago, FNS wrote the congressman there will, in fact, be a $13.8 million shortfall.

“Congressman Sablan has already passed this new information — the governor’s letter and the FNS confirmation — to the Democratic leadership in the [U.S.] House, who will negotiate the next relief act.

“These negotiations have been stalled. As you may know, however, with the election only a few weeks away, the President is now rethinking his position on additional Covid relief and…finally, instructed his negotiators to agree to more funding….

“Congressman Sablan has been very successful in getting food assistance for the people of the Marianas that is equivalent to the rest of America. He raised the annual appropriation for NAP to $12.148 million in his very first term in office. He worked to ensure benefits on Tinian and Rota reflect the higher cost of food there.

“The thousands of Marianas families who now receive aid and have seen their benefits increase over the years know Congressman Sablan is responsible for this improvement in their lives.

“One last note: the Commonwealth is still working on setting up an electronic benefits system and making other administrative improvements recommended in the 2016 report to Congress that Congressman Sablan required as part of the Agricultural Act.

“Once the Commonwealth has done its work, inclusion in the national Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP, will become possible. There will no longer be a need for all this special emergency funding Congressman Sablan has been getting for the Marianas. After almost five years, we do look forward to the Commonwealth finally completing its work.”

November 2020 pssnewsletter

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