There’s a ‘welfare reform’ battle taking place in Harrisburg right now

Gov. Wolf is deciding whether to veto one of the legislature’s last bills before the Nov. 6 election.

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Update, Oct. 25: Gov. Wolf signed the SB 6 “welfare reform” bill into law, saying that it became palatable to him because it was amended to give deference to federal eligibility requirements.

HARRISBURG — Last week, when the General Assembly met for the last scheduled session day before the Nov. 6 election, there was a lot of noise about the scramble to compromise on clergy abuse reform. That effort ultimately failed, but there was another story quietly developing.

On Wednesday, legislators gave final approval to two bills that could significantly change how people in Pennsylvania can access public assistance.

At least one of those bills will not become law — but the other one might.

Gov. Tom Wolf has already vetoed the one passed 30-19 by the Senate, which would require some Medicaid recipients to work at least 20 hours a week, or attend a dozen job training events a month. The legislation passed the House 115-80 in the spring. Wolf had vetoed a similar measure in 2017.

“This legislation does not promote health coverage, access and treatment,” Wolf said in a statement. “Instead, this legislation increases costs, creates unnecessary delays and confusion, penalizes individuals who need healthcare, and terminates health coverage for those who need it the most.”

Meanwhile, House representatives voted 124-62 to approve a multifarious bill framed by its introducer, Sen. Mike Regan (R-Cumberland), as “comprehensive public welfare reform.” Opponents, however, say Senate Bill 6 traffics in stereotypes about people who receive public benefits and could ultimately harm those struggling with addiction.

Representatives from the Women’s Law Project and Community Legal Services of Philadelphia co-wrote a letter to Wolf urging him to veto the bill.

Whether he will or not is currently unclear.

Badly needed restrictions or harmful ‘red tape’?

The pending bill would require the Pa. Department of Human Services to consider vehicles and lottery winnings when making eligibility determinations for benefits.

It also includes a provision that levies a $100 charge on people under 65 to replace a second or subsequent lost benefits card, which is used to purchase food and access cash. The provision was recently amended to add the line, “This section shall apply to the extent permitted by federal law” — meaning that in practice, the surcharge would likely only apply to the state-run General Assistance program, not to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

Even in its amended form, however, advocates for women and people who struggle with addiction are opposed to the bill, saying it creates “more red tape” and barriers for people to access benefits.

Some of the bill’s measures are duplicative, according to Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, like a provision that “bars sex offenders from receiving public benefits if they are out of compliance with registry requirements” — a ban that’s effectively already in place.

The bill also has the potential to harm people who are struggling with drug addiction, advocates say.

It puts a 10-year ban on people with certain drug convictions from receiving benefits, including TANF — a program that’s open only to pregnant women and adults who care for children. Women with children were hit hardest by Pennsylvania’s previous lifetime ban on cash assistance for certain convictions, according to the Women’s Law Project.

“Criminal justice and drug policy experts, together with women’s drug treatment professionals and domestic violence programs, saw from first-hand experience that this lifetime ban on public assistance sabotaged women’s recovery prospects and made the drug problem worse, not better,” Tara Murtha of the Women’s Law Project wrote this month.

Maria Pulzetti, a staff attorney for CLS, said via email it’s not clear how many people could be affected by the provision “in part because drug quantity information is not available in criminal records databases.” For that same reason, she said, “the provisions will also be challenging for the welfare office to implement.”

Is a veto coming?

Both bills passed with comfortable margins and bipartisan support in the House and Senate — some of it surprising, at least on the surface.

Philadelphia Democrat Sen. Sharif Street had originally voted in favor of Senate Bill 6, but cast a vote against it last week when it returned to his chamber for concurrence.

Street policy director Micah Mahjoubian explained that the senator’s yes vote last year came in exchange for an amendment that changed a lifetime ban on benefits to a 10-year ban, and exempted seniors from the $100 replacement fee. In agreeing to that trade, Street sought to make a “bad bill” better, Mahjoubian said, because the office did not get a guarantee that Wolf would veto the bill

On Wednesday, however, Street was under no obligation to vote for the legislation, Mahjoubian said, so “he voted his conscience.”

There’s still no guarantee of a veto. Wolf’s spokesperson said Monday that the legislation “is in final review,” meaning a decision to sign it or veto it has not yet been made.

Drug testing for electeds?

Rep. Ed Gainey didn’t vote in favor of Senate Bill 6 — and now he’s going a step further to show his displeasure with the “hypocritical” legislation.

The Pittsburgh Democrat is pushing a measure that would require drug testing for House and Senate members.

“If we are creating legislation for other people to have to take drug tests who are getting paid taxpayer money, so should we,” Gainey said in a video promoting the proposal. “Nobody gets the type of public assistance that state House members and state Senate members get.”