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By Steve Mistler
The House Republican leader said Monday that he expects Democrats will use a technicality to kill his bill requiring Mainers to prove that they have applied for work before they qualify for cash welfare benefits.
The proposal by Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, would add a pre-work search requirement to those applying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Currently, welfare recipients must show that they’re looking for a job to continue receiving benefits. The bill has counterparts in 19 other states, but faces long odds in the Democratic-controlled Legislature. It was unclear Monday whether the bill will receive a public hearing in the shortened second session because of a provision that prohibits lawmakers from introducing the same bill twice in a single two-year legislative term.
The 10-member legislative council will decide Wednesday which of the 400 bills that have been submitted for the next session will go through the legislative process. Democrats hold six of the 10 seats, prompting concern from Fredette that Democratic leadership will use the duplication rule to spike his proposal.
“Do I think that they’re going to use (the duplication rule) to kill my welfare reform bills? I think the answer is absolutely yes,” Fredette said.
Jodi Quintero, spokeswoman for House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said Monday that the speaker won’t support the bill next session because it’s a political proposal and bad policy. However, it’s unclear if other Democrats on the council will reject the bill before it gets that far.
“The speaker is rejecting the bill on its merits,” said Quintero, adding that the proposal creates additional barriers for the needy to obtain the benefits they need to support their families.
The bill was coded as a potential duplicate by the non-partisan Revisor’s Office, which drafts and prints legislation. The office noted that the bill was similar to L.D. 256, a concept bill sponsored by Rep. Paulette Beaudoin, D-Biddeford. Beaudoin’s bill would have required TANF recipients to collaborate with municipal officials to “seek meaningful employment” or volunteer in order to “continue to receive benefits.” The proposal was defeated.
Fredette acknowledged that the Revisor’s Office is responsible for screening bills. However, he said a cursory reading of his bill and Beaudoin’s showed that the two proposals were different.
“I’m a little concerned,” he said. “As an attorney – and I know that some of those folks (in the Revisor’s Office) are attorneys – a plain-face reading of the bill does indicate that they’re substantially different. I certainly hope there was no strong-arming among Democratic leadership in either the House or the Senate to try to sway the Revisor’s Office that way.”
Earlier this year the duplication rule was inserted into the debate over Medicaid expansion, a hotly-contested issue in Maine and other states weighing whether to participate in a key component of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. Two expansion proposals were defeated last session. However, in September, Eves said that he planned to bring the issueback when lawmakers reconvene for the second session in January.
The House Republican Office immediately claimed that doing so would violate the duplication rule. Fredette reiterated that point on Monday, saying that if Democrats were going to claim that his bill was duplicative then they should make the same judgment about a new Medicaid bill.
“People expect there to be consistent application of the rules,” he said. “Medicaid expansion was voted on once, voted on twice. I don’t think anybody can say going forward that this is not an issue that we haven’t already dealt with this year.”
The new expansion bill has not yet been drafted, but Quintero indicated Monday that the proposal could be introduced as an emergency measure. It’s unclear how Democrats plan to get around the duplication rule, but it’s clear that a new Medicaid expansion proposal that has a chance of garnering Republican votes would have to be different than the one that failed earlier this year. The bill that was vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage had been significantly altered by an amendment sponsored by assistant minority leader Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta.
Passage of Medicaid expansion may be as tenuous as Fredette’s welfare bill. Nonetheless, both proposals could become campaign issues in 2014, a gubernatorial and legislative election year. Medicaid expansion would extend public health insurance to more than 60,000 poor Mainers and Democrats believe that the issue has strong support in polls commissioned by like-minded interest groups. Similarly, Republicans say Mainers want welfare reform.
Given those claims, getting roll call votes on the proposals may be as important to the political parties as passing them.
Fredette’s job search bill has been enacted by 19 other states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In many states, the job search requirement has dramatically reduced caseloads for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. However, critics of the initiative believe the measures are designed to block welfare applicants from receiving needed benefits by making the process more difficult.
“This is a requirement that’s common in other states, and I think most Mainers would agree that we shouldn’t be giving out welfare to able-bodied people who haven’t even looked for a job yet,” said Fredette earlier this month.
LaDonna Pavetti, with the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C., said such proposals are part of an attack on the poor.
“It assumes that people seeking assistance aren’t looking for work or don’t want to work, and we know that isn’t the case,” said Pavetti, adding that temporary assistance is designed to stabilize poor families so they can find work.
TANF is only provided to families with children, or to children directly. The average benefit for all individuals receiving temporary assistance was approximately $149 a month. In August there were 20,608 individuals who received cash benefits, of which 13,338 were children, according to data from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. More than 5,400 of the 7,270 adults (75 percent) participated in ASPIRE, a job placement program.
Fredette has a separate proposal to tighten the work search requirements in ASPIRE.
Pennsylvania passed such a law in 2012 under the direction of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. In September, that state’s Department of Public Welfare reported a spike in denials for welfare cash benefits, from a decades-long average of about 50 percent to a high of 81 percent in February. In 2013, eight of 10 applicants were denied benefits, according to a review by the Philadelphia Inquirer.
A similar trend has occurred in other states that adopted upfront job-search laws or tightened the eligibility standards. In 2004, Georgia beefed up its upfront job-search requirement. Temporary assistance caseloads plummeted along with a corresponding increase in application denials, according to a 2007 report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In 2000, Georgia’s application approval rate for temporary assistance was 40 percent. By 2011, it was 18.2 percent.
The report found no evidence that those denied benefits in Georgia had found work.
According to the report, “Since the implementation of the initiative there has been no net increase in the number of families meeting the federal work requirements.”
According to federal data, national state agencies approved 54.8 percent of temporary assistance applications in 2000. By 2011, the approval rate declined to 44.1 percent amid the adoption of upfront work search laws.
Pavetti, with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said denying benefits upfront also deprived applicants of state-funded evaluations designed to help welfare recipients find work. Currently, adults receiving temporary assistance must participate in job search activities, while also meeting with state officials to assist with job placement.
Eves said last month that he wouldn’t support Fredette’s bill.
“The reality is that one in five children in Maine live in poverty,” Eves said. “It’s easy for politicians to vilify families like these that are struggling to get on their feet again, simply to score political points.”
Judith Levine, a sociologist professor at Temple University, said upfront work policies are popular because states can trim their welfare rolls, and politically expedient because they “tap into long-held public notions of deservedness” that have existed throughout the domestic welfare policy debate.
“Throughout that history, the idea of the ‘deserving poor’ has been tied largely to being employed,” Levine said. “Pre-approval work search policies create one more hurdle in a series of bureaucratic hurdles that needy families face in trying to obtain TANF benefits.”
Levine noted that the barriers are effective, citing data that showed unemployment had gone up by 88 percent nationally during the recession, but the temporary assistance caseload rose by 16 percent.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: