Advocates and critics will debate an asset test for food stamp recipients at a public hearing Tuesday in Augusta, but the test will be adopted regardless of what people say at the forum, LePage administration officials say.

Although the result of the hearing is a foregone conclusion, the fight over the new rule may continue. A state lawmaker plans to introduce a bill in the next legislative session that would repeal the test.

The test will disqualify food stamp applicants who have more than $5,000 in the bank or own certain assets worth more than that amount, including snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles, boats, recreational vehicles and motorcycles. The test will apply only to childless adults, and will not include assets from a home or primary vehicle.

Critics of the rule say such tests discourage low-income people from saving money and create more barriers to escaping poverty.

The administration has said the new rule will go into effect in the coming weeks. The administration does not need approval from the Legislature or the federal government, which funds the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, to make the change.

Rep. Scott Hamann, D-South Portland, has vowed to do whatever he can to eliminate the asset test.

If Hamann’s bill clears procedural hurdles, lawmakers would consider it during the 2016 session, which begins in January. If successful, the Legislature would end the asset test less than a year after the administration put it into effect.

Hamann, who works at Good Shepherd Food-Bank of Maine, said he was motivated to try to repeal the rule for a number of reasons, including that the asset test would not help the state budget, since the food stamp program is funded entirely by the federal government.

“The asset test disempowers people, and makes it harder for them to become self-sufficient,” Hamann said. “If I was a Republican, and I wanted to encourage people to become self-reliant, I would support this bill.”

But David Sorensen, spokesman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said it’s a matter of fairness.

“Mainers expect that their neighbors will use their own money before going to the government for help,” Sorensen said.

“If you knew that a relative of yours had $5,000 in his checking account, would you lend him money for groceries?” he said. “Welfare is a last resort, not a first resort. Welfare is not designed to enable people to keep their savings and snowmobile collections intact. It is designed to cover basic necessities when they have nowhere else to turn.”

The asset test makes it more difficult for people to save money, critics say, encouraging them to spend down to $5,000 in net worth rather than risk losing their food stamps, as SNAP benefits are commonly called. Studies from Maryland and Virginia show that the longer a state has eliminated an asset test for food stamps, the more low-income people save money.

Hamann said the rule could also hurt the state’s economy by taking federal money out of the state and reducing the spending power of low-income Mainers.

“This affects seniors, veterans and people with disabilities,” he said.

Ann Woloson, policy analyst for Maine Equal Justice Partners, a liberal advocacy group, said states that have abandoned the test found that only a tiny percentage of people failed it.

“All this does is increase the bureaucracy,” she said.

A total of 200,896 Mainers were receiving food stamps as of August, and 8,600 of them would be affected by the rule, according to DHHS. The state has not estimated what percentage of the 8,600 would fail the asset test, but Woloson said that based on the experience of other states, it would likely be less than 1 percent.

Maine is one of 36 states that do not require an asset test to receive food stamps, and it will become the only state in the Northeast to do so. States are authorized to apply the test under federal law, but Maine has historically waived it.

Before 2002, all states had to administer an asset test to food stamp recipients, but since then the U.S. Department of Agriculture has given states the flexibility to waive the tests. In 2008, the agency recommended that states waive the tests, and many states have since eliminated them.

Tuesday’s public hearing will begin at 1 p.m. at 19 Union St. in Augusta.

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