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Drew Sheneman | (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger

‘A need that is not going away’

State has the resources to back up Republicans’ anti-hunger gestures

In November, millions of families in Indiana and across the nation saw their Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program benefits cut through a planned phase-out of a temporary increase in funding that originally took place during the 2009 recession.

Unfortunately, this cut in what used to be known as the food stamp program could not have come at a worse time for Indiana. Our state’s unemployment rate still exceeds the national average, and too many of the new jobs being created carry wages around the poverty level. Many do not include any essential benefits such as health care.

In addition, more ominous trouble for the SNAP program looms, as the Republicans in control of the U.S. House consider even more cuts over the next decade.

Under such dire circumstances, it would be good to report that our state is ready to step into the breach and offer some relief for those facing persistent hunger.

That is not the case.

Those who control the executive and legislative branches in Indiana have done little to nothing, preferring to engage in symbolic gestures rather than take tangible steps to stop hunger.

Last February, the majority leadership of the Indiana House decided to highlight an area of charitable need by having representatives provide daily testimonials about the great work that food banks do across our state and placing a drop-off box for food donations. In the days before Halloween, the governor chose to raise money for the hungry by selling pumpkins on the Statehouse lawn.

However, when it came to actually doing something substantive for the cause of food insecurity, there was a gigantic chasm between the rhetoric expressed and the actions that were actually undertaken.

Based on the governor’s recommendation, only $300,000 was appropriated to our state’s food banks for each year of the biennial state budget, despite repeated attempts by myself and other House Democrats to provide more. That is $300,000 in a $14 billion state budget.

These same leaders have shown a demonstrated zeal when it comes to bestowing tax breaks to those who do not really need them. But when it comes to addressing one of the most persistent unmet needs of our state, the silence from our leaders is truly deafening.

Hopefully, all hope is not lost, and we can try again to address a need that is not going away. I have two suggestions that could make a real difference in addressing the hunger problem in our state.

First, even though 2014 is not a budget year, our state has a $2 billion surplus. A small fraction of this surplus could be directed to food banks as a supplemental appropriation.

Even a tenfold increase would be only $3 million. That wouldn’t be remotely enough money to make up the $98 million we are losing through reductions in SNAP, but it still would be a respectable start.

Secondly, the governor could ask the State Board of Finance at its next monthly meeting to transfer money to food banks. This group – consisting of the governor, state auditor and state treasurer – has almost unlimited power to transfer money among funds for almost any reason they choose.

In recent years, governors in our state have been very nimble in using this board for exactly this purpose. Not long ago, Gov. Mike Pence secured a transfer of almost $150 million in Family and Social Services Agency funds to help clean up an accounting mistake involving local option income tax allocations.

If the State Board of Finance can make these transfers for political reasons, policy preferences or correcting clerical errors, surely the same approach can be undertaken to ensure something as essential as alleviating the hunger pains of our residents.

Now that we are in the heart of the holiday season, I truly hope that public officials in our state realize that there is an opportunity to take substantive action on a problem that afflicts too many people in our state.

Rather than empty public relations gestures, I think the time has come to take more direct action to help stop hunger. We have the chance – and the ability – to do so much more.

Gregory W. Porter, an Indianapolis Democrat, is ranking minority member on the House Ways and Means Committee. He wrote this for Indiana newspapers.