Nearly 600 Utahns petitioned Gov. Mike Leavitt on Thursday to reduce the red tape in the food stamp program, saying the state could save money if it offered better service.

Petitioners endorse four changes that the Anti-Hunger Action Committee and two other advocacy groups passed along to the governor during a meeting with Leavitt chief of staff Rich McKeown. Applicants face a number of cumbersome forms and other hassles to get into the federally funded program, the advocates said, noting, however, that the state Department of Workforce Services, which manages it, is taking steps to streamline the process.

That didn't happen soon enough for Debra Gonzales, a single mother of five from Salt Lake who said she went six months without stamps because of bureaucratic aggravation. She said she was asked so often to verify background information she had already verified she gave up "because it got so frustrating and discouraging."

As an example, Gonzales said she was asked for and provided copies of a vehicle bill of sale three times. She did eventually get stamps, "but at one point I had decided I wouldn't go back to the state for help. When you have five kids and are working, it just became too big a hassle."

Federal funding for food stamps in 2000 in Utah was $80.7 million for about 82,000 Utahns. Advocates say the money is a boost to the economy, not a drain as food stamps are often characterized. They also point out that interest in the program, which has risen as the economy has declined in recent months, is expected to increase more because the right of illegal immigrants to get food stamps has been restored under the farm bill that was passed in the Senate and sent to the White House on Wednesday.

The petition, which is a follow-up to a letter the groups sent to Leavitt in March, suggests that certification to receive food stamps should last a year, not three months. Reapplying so often puts people in the embarrassing position of having to go back to employers and landlords to get verification that is often identical to information provided three months earlier, the advocates said.

Inputting identical information into the state's computer system every three months is also waste of tax money, said Bill Tibbitts, an advocate with Crossroads Urban Center.

The department notes, and advocates agree, that it has made changes in how it notifies families that their benefits are being stopped or being reduced, a request made in the initial letter to Leavitt.

Department spokesman Curt Stewart also said that the agency works with the advocacy groups and is studying or is implementing several of the changes in the petition. Some elements are required by the federal government, he said, adding that it is unlikely to go along with recertification of less than six months for recipients other than senior citizens on an established income. As far as other requirements, "we don't make people do more than we are required to ask for."

Efforts are also being made to shorten the 10-page food stamp and welfare application, which the advocates say is not only too big but is a relic of an era when most recipient information was stored on paper. They mentioned that several Western states have much shorter forms, such as Oregon's two-page application. They didn't mention Colorado's form, which is 36 pages.

Kay Fox of the Disability Rights Action Committee said the state has an outdated application method yet is so reliant computers that food stamp cases can't be worked when the computer systems goes down.

Despite what is happening in other states, Fox said the Utah application appears to be designed to find out unrelated information. One question on the form asks: "Are you interested in receiving information about assistance available for parents who wish to legally give up custody of a child for adoption?"

The form ultimately discourages the use of food stamps, Fox said, "which is odd because it's a federal program. And you shouldn't have to provide information for other programs that you'll never be interested in."

The advocates say the state creates hassle for itself and increases the potential for errors by requesting duplicate information. Utah was fined $144,000 by the U.S. General Accounting Office in January for a relatively high error rate compared with other states. The GAO said the main reason for such mistakes is the "extremely complex" rules that administrators must use to determine eligibility.

Tibbitts said the state has a formula for what an applicant needs to turn in "but it needs a clear policy on when a family has provided enough."

McKeown said he would pass the recommendations on to the governor as well as to Raylene Ireland, the department's new director.


E-MAIL: jthalman@desnews.com