Food Stamp Chaos

There are reports today of a 2 hour or so glitch in the Louisiana EBT (food stamp) program on Saturday night that allowed many shoppers to go on a spending spree. Apparently, the cards weren’t registering a balance but were authorizing transactions at Wal-Mart, which means it was an all-you-can-grab free-for-all for those shoppers who managed to figure out what was happening with the cards.

Clearly, this is a situation that cannot go unfixed. We’re talking about outright theft of taxpayer funds by the individuals who took advantage of a technical glitch and a retailer being complicit in allowing the theft to continue. I can imagine 4 possible results of this situation: 1) the shoppers are stuck with the bill as an advance on future funds, 2) Wal-Mart and the card processor (Xerox, I believe) foot the bill, 3) Louisiana taxpayers foot the bill, or 4) some combination of all of the above.

The first response, while I’m sure will have support from some, doesn’t seem all that practical to me. I used to work for Chase bank, and if your account was mistakenly credited with someone else’s deposit but you decided to spend the funds thinking Christmas came early (yes, this happened), then once the bank corrected the mistake and removed the funds from your account, you could be left actually owing the bank money if you went ahead and spent it. In my opinion, this is the reasonable way to deal with adults, but even if you consider that it is probably the most direct and equitable way to recoup these funds by considering it as an advance of future payment, there are potential unintended innocent victims that could be harmed (i.e. children). As a result, I don’t see the state sticking them with the full bill.

The second response; sticking retailers who knew what was happening and accepted the cards anyway and the company responsible for the glitch with the bill seems somewhat fair, but ignores the fact that the customers were just as guilty for spending money they knew they didn’t have. So I can’t see the customers getting off scot-free either.

The third response; Louisiana taxpayers foot the bill and everyone acts like nothing happened, seems like the least likely result to me. Politically and equitably I can’t even come up with a possible rationale for this being a possible result.

Which leaves us with a combination of the customers, retailers, and the processing company paying for this in some combination. Now, I’m assuming that the card processor has a way of determining who spent what during this fiasco and could conceivably pursue solution #1. Also, I don’t exactly think it’s fair for the processor to be stuck with liability on this. So, I would come up with some way to make the customers pay for as much as possible without inflicting too much harm in future months (such as by providing enough notice for the effected people to plan ahead), with Wal-Mart paying the difference.

Interestingly though, I tried to get a full statistical breakdown of EBT recipients in DeSoto Parish, where the Mansfield Wal-Mart is located, and all I could find is this, which says about 10% of DeSoto Parish receives food stamps at an average of $126/person per month. If true, the reports of some shoppers “purchasing” over $700 of food, makes their actions look even worse. (The federal government-run SNAP website is down due to the “government shutdown” at the time I write this.) In any event, the lesson should be this: DON’T SPEND MONEY THAT ISN’T YOURS!

*UPDATE* A spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Children and Family services says that state taxpayers have nothing to worry about. The retailers failed to follow a procedure with Xerox, the EBT card processor, so either the retailers will have to eat the cost or pursue potential legal remedies against the shoppers.

*UPDATE 2/24/14* The state is apparently going after 500 of the most egregious overspenders and disqualifying them from benefits.


Rep. Richmond Leans Toward Support of Military Force in Syria

Like a good citizen I emailed my Congresspeople this week to voice my desire for them to vote against using United States military force of any kind in Syria.

As of this post, I have only heard back from Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA2). His response in its entirety (as regards this issue) is below.

“The use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime on unarmed civilians demands strong action. It is critical that President Obama outline the level of our engagement with a clear timetable. It is equally critical that we achieve our goals without boots on the ground, however, we must do what we can to ensure that this grave human offense is addressed. I am pleased that the President has sought approval from my colleagues in Congress before taking action in Syria and I look forward to listening to the evidence presented by the Administration and the important and necessary debate that will follow.  I have grave concerns about the use of force, but I believe that the overpowering use of chemical weapons against un-armed non-combatants crosses a line that demands a robust response from the international community.”

I would read his response as leaning toward supporting the use of force in Syria. Since I don’t believe it should be the role of the United States to act as the policeman of the world, I respectfully disagree with Rep. Richmond, and again urge him to vote against any use of U.S. military force.

*FULL DISCLOSURE* The author of this post, Caleb Trotter, ran against Rep. Richmond in the 2012 Congressional race in LA.

License Plate Tracking Update

Back in December I noted that NOPD has no stated policy for their usage and retention of data gathered through its use of license plate scanners. I was alarmed at this, but haven’t had much time to pursue it further.

Fortunately, the ACLU shares my concerns. Today, the ACLU released a report that analyzes the results of a nation-wide study on law enforcement policies of using and retaining data acquired by these scanners. The results are not good for privacy concerns.

New Orleans or Louisiana are not specifically mentioned in the study, but I intend to restart this project and attempt to get the Independent Police Monitor involved in the next couple of months. As I stated in December, “All I want to know is exactly what NOPD uses this data for and how long they keep it. I don’t think that’s asking too much.”

Stay tuned!

Food Trucks, Who’s Your Nanny?

I don’t know about you, but I sure am glad we have LaToya Cantrell making sure food trucks look pretty and Jackie Clarkson looking out for restaurants’ private property rights.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013 saw another round of debate over Councilmember Head’s proposed food truck ordinance changes. I have been critical over a number of the changes, but at least they’re a step in the right direction. However, I’m starting to wonder if the council will even take that first step.

Councilmember Cantrell apparently thinks New Orleanians have difficulty distinguishing between food trucks and carnival-food vendors. How else could she justify suggesting an aesthetic requirement on truck operators? Aside from this being a ridiculous idea, I have a question for Councilmember Cantrell. Who’s aesthetic standard will apply? Yours (which could be awesome or terrible, but that’s irrelevant)? Or will it be some generic, uniform design that will actually make it more difficult to distinguish between the trucks? Newsflash, it is not the role of the government to decide what is aesthetically preferable. Get out of the way and stop playing government Nanny. Aesthetics have absolutely nothing to do with whether the trucks operate in a safe way in preparing food for their customers.

I reserve my most significant outrage for economic protectionist, Councilmember Clarkson. She believes it is her job on the council to protect restaurants from having to compete with those big, bad food trucks who are stealing everybody’s business. Ms. Clarkson does not think food trucks should be able to operate within 100 feet of an existing restaurant. Don’t ask her what a suitable distance is though, she has no idea.

“You’re talking about land owners, private property rights, you’re talking about tax payers on property. I come from that world…I’m trying not to get into measurements with you, and I’m trying not to argue.”

Well Ms. Clarkson, you are wrong in several ways. First, lets talk about those land owners and private property rights. You are allowing restaurant owners to tell other business owners where they may operate on public property (streets). A restaurant’s property rights and land ownership do not extend to the parking spaces on the public street. Also, I fail to see how your argument is in any way logical. Do you complain when a restaurant opens within 100 feet of another restaurant? What about when a bank opens within 100 feet of another bank? A salon 100 feet from another salon? You get the idea. If we were to apply your reasoning to all aspects of commerce we would quickly see New Orleans devoid of commerce. The better idea is that there be no distance requirements. Look at the line of art galleries on Royal St, the bars and restaurants on Magazine and Oak to name just a few examples. When businesses compete with and complement each other it creates thriving neighborhoods and districts. This is what your policy would prevent, Ms Clarkson.

Second, food trucks also pay taxes. They pay sales taxes on all their supplies, they pay fuel taxes on their gasoline, they contribute to payroll taxes, federal and state, for their employees, and they collect sales taxes for the city of New Orleans. The point isn’t that restaurants pay more taxes because of property taxes. That is a choice restaurant owners made when they went into business.

At the core of the issue is that banning food trucks from reasonable operating locations serves only one interest. The interest of a business that has set hours, a set location, seats, air conditioning and heating, etc. This restriction protects the business that already has all the advantages. The public is the group that suffers.

If you keep up your nanny-like behavior Ms. Clarkson, I will be happy to help send you back to the world you so proudly come from next election.