April 20, 2019

GOP backs down on welfare time limits

AUGUSTA — Time limits for receiving welfare remain a divisive issue among legislators trying to forge a welfare reform package in Augusta, although Republicans and Democrats on the Joint Standing Committee on Human Resources appeared closer to agreement on the issue Wednesday than they have in the past few weeks.

But it appears they will not meet a Friday deadline to finish their proposal. The committee is trying to forge a welfare reform package for consideration by the full Legislature. The deadline had been set by legislative leaders who are pushing for all bills to be out of committee by the end of the week to keep on track with a late June adjournment.

The deadline is informal and carries no sanctions — unlike some of the welfare proposals heard Wednesday — and committee leaders did not express concern about failing to meet it.

The Human Resources Committee will meet again Thursday to continue talking about areas of agreement and disagreement on welfare reform. They are using LD 1496 “An Act To Improve the AFDC Program,” also known as the “governor’s bill,” to consolidate their positions.

Following a three-hour work session Wednesday, Sen. Joan Pendexter (R-Scarborough), Republican head of the Human Resources Committee, backed away from a firmly entrenched Republican position that welfare recipients receive a maximum of 26 weeks of benefits before being removed from the public dole. Republicans might consider allowing new welfare recipients to receive a maximum of two years of AFDC, said Pendexter, surprising even her colleague, Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick (D-Durham), who also heads the Human Resources panel.

Democrats all along have pushed for a two-year time period for welfare benefits, including education and training programs in the package.

“That’s the value of negotiation for you,” said Fitzpatrick, referring to the fact that both sides have been conducting private negotiations with members of the governor’s staff to close the widening gap of disagreement that has burgeoned over welfare reform issues.

On Wednesday, about 15 people attended the work session including Department of Human Services leaders and advocates for low-income people.

Twelve members of the Human Resources Committee agreed on the philosophy of the governor’s bill, which puts welfare recipients on notice that they will be working to get their monthly AFDC checks.

Areas agreed upon include: changing the name of the Bureau of Income Maintenance, a department that disburses welfare payments, to the Bureau of Family Independence; providing transitional child-care assistance for families terminated from AFDC because of job-search activities; and starting an ASPIRE-Plus program that will pay a stipend to employers in certain parts of the state who hire AFDC recipients. Areas targeted for the ASPIRE-plus program include Region 1 (Cumberland and York counties); Region 2 (Washington, Hancock, Piscataquis and Penobscot counties); and Region 4 (Oxford, Androscoggin and York counties).

Rep. Fitzpatrick attempted to remove discussions about “the gap” from the bill, stating that the issue is a budgetary problem, not a human resources problem, and should be brought up elsewhere. The gap refers to an amount of earned or unearned income welfare recipients are allowed to have without having a deduction to monthly welfare checks. Republicans want the gap removed while Democrats want it left alone.

Sen. Pendexter disagreed with Fitzpatrick on the gap issue and the matter was put aside temporarily.

Considerable discussion took place about increasing the hours AFDC recipients might be required to work under the work force phase of a newly constructed AFDC program. DHS Commissioner Kevin Concannon agreed to contact officials in Washington on the matter.

Areas of disagreement included specific wording of “family contracts,” documents DHS leaders want family leaders on AFDC to sign spelling out the responsibilities parents will assume for their children.

Discussion did not take place on the “family cap” — a controversial issue that would not allow an increase in welfare benefits to women who have additional babies while collecting AFDC. Sen. Pendexter said Republicans were going to draft a separate bill on the issue.

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