This story has been updated with comments from the the governor's office and the Agriculture Department.
Maine's residents would no longer receive food stamps if Gov. Paul LePage (R) delivers on a threat to end his state's administration of the program. In a letter to the Obama administration last week, the governor wrote that beneficiaries were wasting public money on "a steady diet of Mars bars and Mountain Dew" and that he did not want his name associated with the program.
The letter escalated a long-running dispute between LePage and the administration over several aspects of the food-stamp program. Most recently, LePage had wanted to bar Maine residents from using food stamps to buy unhealthy food. When federal officials rejected his proposal to institute such a rule statewide, LePage reacted angrily.
"It's time for the federal government to wake up and smell the energy drinks," he concluded in his letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
"I will be pursuing options to implement reform unilaterally or cease Maine's administration of the food stamp program altogether," the letter continued. "You maintain such a broken program that I do not want my name attached to it."
The legal implications of LePage's threat were not immediately clear. If he carries it out, the governor could put federal officials in a bind, forcing them either to find a way to accede to his demands or suspend the program in Maine. The legislature or the courts in the state could conceivably challenge LePage as well.
In a message to The Washington Post, Adrienne Bennett, LePage's press secretary, wrote that if the governor bowed out, the federal government could take over the food-stamp program in Maine.
"The governor did not threaten to end the program," she wrote. "He threatened to stop administering it from DHHS so that the feds would be forced to administer it in Maine." The acronym DHHS refers to the Department of Health and Human Services, the state agency responsible for administering the program.
Legally, however, the federal government does not have the authority to administer food stamps, which is the responsibility of the states.
"If the state chooses not to administer SNAP, then its citizens will not receive nutrition assistance benefits through the programs," said the spokesman for the Agriculture Department, Matt Herrick, using the acronym for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, the official name of the food-stamp system.
"We do not have the authority or funding to administer snap at the state level," he said. "In real world terms, what that means is people lose benefits. People suffer."
Herrick also said that the federal agency shared the goal of improving nutrition for food-stamp recipients, but that Maine would have to first demonstrate that any new rules would have a positive effect on public health before implementing them.
LePage is one of a number of conservative politicians who have argued that public-assistance programs are wasteful and called for restrictions on how enrollees use their benefits. Policymakers in Mississippi and other states have put forward similar proposals to prevent food stamps from being spent on unhealthy items.
Last year, LePage imposed rules barring residents of the state from receiving food stamps if they had at least $5,000 in assets deemed "non-essential," such as bank accounts or secondary vehicles.
As of March, 190,000 people were receiving food stamps in Maine, federal data show. The average family received $212 for the month.
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