Rep. Chris Bell, D-Jackson

“What does the state of Mississippi have against poor people?”

This was the sentiment expressed by Rep. Chris Bell, D-Jackson and numerous members of the House of Representatives who urged their colleagues to vote against Senate Bill 2257, a controversial piece of legislation that would allow the state auditor to examine tax returns of public assistance recipients.

Those who spoke out against the bill were unsuccessful. After a lively debate, it passed 76 to 45 mostly along party lines.

The legislation gives the State Auditor’s Office the authority to examine income tax returns to determine eligibility for public assistance programs including Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Rep. Joey Hood, R-Ackerman, chair of the House Medicaid Committee, presented the bill. The auditor’s office will select a random sample of five percent of applicants’ state income tax returns and compare them to what is listed on their public assistance application, Hood said.

“It’s another tool in the tool box to check the eligibility requirements,” he said.

The bill was initially taken up in a Senate committee one day after the auditor’s office announced that the Mississippi Director of Human Services and nonprofit officials allegedly allowed subcontractors to steal millions of federal dollars designated for poor Mississippians.

Those officials allegedly embezzled more than $4.15 million from the TANF program intended to provide basic assistance and work supports. The federal government gives states broad discretion to spend the money; Mississippi receives about $86.5 million a year from the federal government.

[Read all of our coverage on Mississippi welfare.]

In the House, Democratic Reps. Robert Johnson of Natchez and Jarvis Dortch of Raymond each offered amendments to change the bill, arguing that tax returns are not a reliable resource to use for these audits. Neither were successful; both amendments failed primarily along party lines.

Several House members questioned why the Legislature was not auditing providers or the agencies that oversee these funds.

“This bill is an attack on poor people,” Bell said. “This bill addresses individuals who don’t make enough money to survive, and now we’re targeting them as a result of someone else stealing millions of dollars. So again, my question is what does the state of Mississippi have against poor people?”

Hood replied that this legislation is not a response to the embezzlement scandal, but instead a response to a federal mandate released in 2019 that requires the state auditor’s office redetermine the eligibility of able-bodied Medicaid recipients within its annual audit.

Although the bill passed, it was held on a motion to reconsider, which means the House could potentially take it up again. View how members voted here.

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Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.