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Blind vendors say bill would put them out of work

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OKLAHOMA - There is a fight over food in Oklahoma. Specifically, the companies who provide it.

Blind vendors run a number of snack rooms and vending machines in our state.

They say if a few lawmakers have it their way, they will be out of work and back on the couch.

Glenn Benedict has been running a vending business for 20 years.

He operates more than 30 vending machines in our state, including at the Oklahoma County Jail.

To him, his job is rewarding.

"I just feel good. I feel like I'm helping people. I try to keep my prices down for the people. Especially the county jail," Benedict

Many might not realize Benedict is legally blind.

He got into the vending business through a program run by the Department of Rehabilitation Services.

"This program is meant to get blind people off the couch. Go to work," Benedict said. "Makes you feel like you're worth something.”

Now he fears he will lose that worth.

According to Title VII of Oklahoma law, blind vendors get priority when it comes to offering their services in most government buildings.

However, some lawmakers are concerned because blind vendors do not have to pay commission, as where other vendors would.

A new proposal would make it so county jails could use a private company instead.

"Once they shut us down it's going to be like a domino effect," Benedict said.

Terry Simonson, Director of Governmental Affairs at the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office, sent us the following statement:

“Due to what some believe are conflicting statutes regarding who has the right of first refusal to run the commissary in county jails, the Tulsa County Sheriff's Office has proposed legislation that would exempt jails from the requirement that commissaries must be run by blind operators.

Current statutes provides this exemption for golf courses, race tracks, fair grounds, exhibition halls, and recently the state capitol.

The Sheriff believes that any profit made from operating the jail commissary should remain in the jail to provide better services and care to the prisoners since the profit that is made comes from the inmates using the commissary.

Tulsa County is the only county in Oklahoma where the Sheriff is not running the jail commissary.

This bill does not deal with vending machines in jails. Only the commissary food service that is provided in the jail to the prisoners

This bill supports the concept that any money made in the jail that comes from the inmates should remain in the jail for the inmates.

We just want jails to be treated the same way that the legislature has treated the capital food service as well as the race tracks and fairgrounds.”

"Somebody wants to get their hands in our pockets, but once they do that our program is through," Benedict said.

A similar bill passed that exempted the state capitol from having to use blind vendors for the snack bar.