Who's really behind the latest push to expand food stamps in Arkansas?
5 min read

Who's really behind the latest push to expand food stamps in Arkansas?

Safety Net
Mar 24
5 min read

As the debate over SB306 and food stamps expansion has heated up for the last few weeks, I’ve had several people ask me, “Why are they doing this? Don’t we have a conservative supermajority in the legislature? What is going on?”

Sure, Sen. Jonathan Dismang has a history of being liberal on welfare issues. Perhaps that explains part of the mystery. But the more complete answer is even simpler.

Who’s behind SB306?

SB306 is being pushed by Impact Management Group, a “Republican” lobbying firm based in Little Rock, on behalf of Southern Bancorp, a "Community Development Finance Institution." 

You can read about Southern's commitment to "diversity, equity, and inclusion" here, in which they say their founding is deeply rooted.

Notably, Impact is also a fairly significant donor to Senator Dismang:

In addition to their contract lobbyists, Southern Bancorp employs an in-house lobbyist, Janie Ginocchio. Our readers probably don't recognize her name, but she is a former writer for the Arkansas Times, one of the most liberal and vicious blogs in the country.

Southern Bancorp is run by Darrin Williams, the former Democrat Speaker-designate of the Arkansas House.

Now, if you’re like me, you’re probably asking yourself, “Why does a bank care enough about expanding food stamps that they are willing to employ expensive lobbyists to make it happen?”

And why are Republicans and Democrats conspiring to make it happen — especially when Governor Sarah Sanders strongly opposes it?

I can’t fully explain that; it seems odd to me too. But I can tell you what I know.

Southern Bancorp has been trying to expand welfare for at least a decade

Give them points for consistency: Southern Bancorp has been pushing for welfare-for-the-wealthy for at least a decade. In fact, they have been not-so-subtly advocating for the elimination of the asset limit going back to at least 2013.

In a policy brief titled “Making the case for eliminating asset limits: Why asset limits undermine financial security for Arkansans,” the authors argue for exactly that. They say expanding food stamps will help Arkansans “achieve the American dream”:

“To help Arkansas individuals and families achieve the American dream and put them on a path to economic self-sufficiency, asset limits must be eliminated on TANF and SNAP programs.”

They also cite former far-left President Barack Obama’s support for massively raising asset limits in food stamps.

But again, why does a bank care so much about expanding welfare?

Southern Bancorp has been explicit about their desire to erode AR asset limit to help them open bank accounts

Don’t just take my word for it: read it from Southern Bancorp themselves.

According to their policy brief, pesky things like welfare rules can cause “anxiety” for people—which might stop them from opening bank accounts—and should therefore be eliminated:

“The anxiety of asset testing may prevent some households from opening and sustaining a bank account and may keep them outside the financial mainstream.”

Therefore, as the authors explain, a key part of “asset limit reform” is to encourage people to
support saving and holding bank accounts.”

(Oddly enough, opening bank accounts happens to be a big part of Southern Bancorp’s business model.)

This logic is also consistent with what Southern’s hired lobbyist told me last session: Southern Bancorp believes that raising the food stamp asset limit will help bring money “out of the shadows” — and into their banks.

This is because, I was told, food stamp enrollees actually have thousands of dollars in cash “under their mattresses” and “under their truck seats” (a line recently parroted by Sen. Dismang on the Senate floor).

And they can’t put it in the bank. Otherwise, the government might see it and catch on to their scheme, which would cost them their welfare.

(This is also less formally known as welfare fraud–hiding assets in order to keep receiving benefits.)

So Southern Bancorp and Impact Management insist taxpayers must do more to help these welfare scammers: We need to foot the bill for more food stamps, and for longer, so that people can deposit these secret stashes of cash into banks.

And, if that cash just happens to trickle into Southern Bancorp, wouldn’t that be something?

Unfortunately, this might not be the first time Southern has used their political clout to funnel taxpayer dollars into their coffers.

Southern Bancorp’s CEO has a history of using taxpayer dollars to help, well, Southern Bancorp

I mentioned Darrin Williams, the former state legislator and brief Speaker-designate of the Arkansas House.

Williams was appointed to be CEO of Southern Bancorp on January 2013, while he was still a state legislator. 

He took the helm of the organization on February 1, 2013.

And then just a month later (March 7th, 2013), he filed the New Markets Jobs Act.

The bill, which was passed into law and became Act 1474, provided tax credits to “community development entities.” This appears — based on the plain text of the bill — to have included his new employer, Southern Bancorp.

According to state estimates at the time, the credit costs Arkansas taxpayers nearly $20 million per year.

The lead Senate cosponsor of Williams’ “jobs” handout? Sen. Jonathan Dismang.

(Other notable co-sponsors include former Sen. Jake Files and former Sen. Jon Woods, who have both enjoyed stints in federal prison, and Rep. Hank Wilkins who was sentenced to a year in prison for his role in a multi-million dollar bribery scheme. Apparently Wilkins’ co-conspirator, former Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, missed out on this one, although he did vote for it.)

What’s really going on here?

Thanks to USDA data, we know that the average food stamp enrollee has less than $800 in savings, nowhere close to the asset cap.

We also know that our current asset cap is not “punishing” anyone for saving.

And we know — because Sen. Dismang told us — that SB306 will likely not encourage anyone to save more money.

So what is this really all about? Is it really about helping people? Or is it just another handout for Southern Bancorp?

I can’t say for sure who all might benefit from the passage of SB306 – although it’s clear Southern Bancorp seems to think it would be good for them. But what I can say for sure is that taxpayers, current food stamp enrollees, and newly-trapped enrollees stand to lose a great deal.

Image of the story authorNicholas Horton
Founder & CEO

Nic Horton is a native Arkansan and Founder & CEO of Opportunity Arkansas. He has spent more than a decade in the conservative movement as an expert on election, disability, tax, welfare, and workforce reform.

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