Watch Me Go to Jail!

You know how I’ve long said that DHS doesn’t go door-to-door, making sure your food is separated from those who don’t use food stamps? Yeah, they’re (all but) about to…


LANSING – Critics say a bill giving new police powers to certain state workers would create “welfare police” to punish the poor, but supporters say it’s a stride toward efficiency and protecting taxpayer dollars.

State Sen. Peter MacGregor’s Senate Bill 384 would give arrest powers to employees of the Department of Health & Human Service’s Office of Inspector General. That agency investigates welfare fraud, such as when food stamps are sold for cash or used for ineligible items such as cigarettes.

Under the bill, which passed the state Senate 27-11 in September and is awaiting a committee vote in the House, OIG agents could arrest people for trafficking food stamps or other benefits or if the agents have “probable cause” to believe a person committed a felony.

A companion bill from state Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, would exempt those agents from certain firearm restrictions.

DHHS spokesman Bob Wheaton said in an email there are 240 employees in the OIG, but the department plans to have fewer than 10 inspectors with the new police powers.

Wheaton said DHHS supports the bill because its agents can currently only take action against the benefits recipients for violations, but must rely on U.S. Department of Agriculture agents to handle the retailers who participate in fraud. There are only five federal agents across Michigan, he said, and “our Office of Inspector General receives daily tips on retailer trafficking.”

“This is just another tool to help maintain the integrity of these programs we have in the state,” MacGregor, R-Rockford, said last week.

But the bill has both bipartisan support and bipartisan opposition.

Speaking against the bill on the Senate floor in September, Democratic state Sen. Coleman Young II said the bill “seeks to criminalize the very act of being a member of the working poor.

“This bill would allow the Department of Health & Human Services to create its own police force,” Young said. “That’s right, welfare police. Literally, the welfare police. This is insane; it’s crazy.”

“We’re not going after recipients, it’s more on the retail side,” MacGregor told the State Journal. “Obviously, it takes two to tango; it’s buyers and sellers … (But) these people are going after organized crime.”

Republican state Sen. Patrick Colbeck said on the floor that he opposed the bill because DHHS typically implements federal policy, including the Affordable Care Act, and the bill would lead to “the camel’s nose under the tent giving more and more credence to the concern of the federal government’s overreach into areas where they have no authority.”

“The powers are very limited,” MacGregor answered. “This is just another tool to allow us to stop this fraud that is happening.”

A 2013 report from the federal Agriculture Department estimated $858 million in food stamp benefits were trafficked every year and 10.5% of authorized food stamp stores engaged in trafficking.

In Michigan, the OIG found $2.4 million in fraud from trafficking last year, according the office’s annual report. The office claims every dollar invested in enforcement yields $26 in taxpayer savings.

“The sky will not fall if this becomes a public act,” MacGregor said. “In fact, I think this will help out the folks who really need the help of these programs.”

Last week, Dearborn attorney John Payne wrote to the state House Criminal Justice Committee now considering the bill to warn the legislation “will result in the arrest of many well-meaning, but mistaken welfare applicants and recipients.” Payne is chair of the Elder Law & Disability Rights Section of the state bar, which voted to oppose the bill.

According the House Fiscal Agency, DHHS would spend about $300,000 to arm and train eight agents in a tailored Michigan State Police training program.

MacGregor said the OIG agents would have to meet state police licensing standards. He said many of the OIG agents are former police officers with law enforcement training.

“A lot of people think we’re going to give social workers guns,” MacGregor said, “and that is not what’s happening.”

Contact Justin A. Hinkley at (517) 377-1195 or jhinkley@lsj.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.

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