Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, asked the Office of Legislative Research how the state can do a better job of expanding services to families in need, especially those that participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP.

Spending of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, commonly referred to as food stamps, is closely regulated, according to the legislative report. SNAP benefits can only be spent on food items approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and an arm of that agency, the Food and Nutrition Division, which is tasked with reviewing the transaction data, it said.

SNAP benefits, transferred to debit cards to cut down on the stigma associated with food stamps, are restricted to certain food items and cannot be used to purchase things like cigarettes and alcohol, according to the USDA. Some food products, like hot foods or foods that will be eaten in the store, are not authorized. Even necessities like household supplies, hygiene products and medicine cannot be purchased with the benefits, according to the USDA.

It turns out that there just aren’t enough people processing the SNAP applications in the state, Walker said.

Advocates, like End Hunger Connecticut, have also suggested that the caseloads of those processing applications are three times what they should be.

While the state and federal government shares administrative costs, SNAP benefits are paid for by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. So if applications go unprocessed, or errors are made while processing the applications, the state misses out on federal aid, which would help to stimulate the economy.

“It’s not because we don’t have people that need the assistance. It’s because there aren’t enough people to process all the applications,” Walker said.

In fact, food stamp applications have increased between 30 and 40 percent over the last year, she said.

With that in mind, she proposed a bill to require the Department of Social Services commissioner to designate a sufficient number of employees to process the applications, she said. She said she was hoping that other agencies and organizations could help, but has since found out that the federal government requires the paperwork to be submitted by DSS.

Walker also said she would like to find a way to ease some of the regulations on how SNAP benefits can be used. For instance, she would like to see families be able to purchase needed hygiene supplies with the benefits, she said.

The legislative report also found that the state does not track how low-income recipients spend their cash benefits received on electronic benefit transfer cards.

Cash transfers to the debit cards can be spent anywhere and on anything, the report found. Cardholders can access the money at any ATM in the state with a five exceptions, it said. They are the three casinos and two locations with off-track betting facilities where the cards can’t be used, it said. The report notes that those exceptions were put in place by the company that provides cash to the facilities, not by the state.

There are several bills this session that address cash assistance and SNAP benefits:

-A bill to increase the number of SNAP applications processed

-A bill to privatize SNAP

-A measure to require drug testing for benefits

-A measure to prevent convicted felons from receiving state benefits