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April 1, 2015

Senate moves bill containing GOP-backed welfare reforms

Bryan Lowry, Eagle Topeka Bureau

The Senate debated five hours before advancing legislation Wednesday incorporating into Kansas law a collection of controversial welfare reforms implemented by officials in the administration of Gov. Sam Brownback during the past four years.

 

The bill, set for a final Senate vote Thursday, also would expand upon the Republican governor’s actions by capping at 36 months lifetime benefits under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, limiting to $25 the amount a person could withdraw daily from TANF accounts with an ATM and creating a special photograph identification card for food stamp beneficiaries.

 

Sen. Michael O’Donnell, a Wichita Republican who led advocacy for House Bill 2258, said the bill was designed to compel people to spend public assistance “more responsibly” and to shape the state’s support network in ways that directed individuals into jobs and away from handouts.

 

“We're trying to make sure those benefits are used the way they were intended,” O'Donnell said. “This is about prosperity. This is about having a great life.”

 

During Brownback’s first term in office, the state’s TANF enrollment declined by half from 38,900 in 2011 to 17,600 in 2014. There are about 300,000 Kansans receiving food stamps, which is an increase of about 5,000 since Brownback took office.

 

Rapid decline in TANF participation was hailed by O’Donnell and other Republicans as evidence of the administration’s anti-poverty strategies had changed lives of Kansans, while Democrats asserted that drop reflected strident eligibility regulations that accomplished little beyond purging people from TANF rolls.

 

“We pat ourselves on the back that our TANF rolls have gone down exponentially and we say it's because all those people are now working. We don’t know that and I’m guessing its not the truth,” said Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka.

 

Kelly said weaving regulations limiting access to federally funded programs into state law was a strategy to  make it difficult for future governors to unravel Brownback’s vision of welfare.

 

“Now what we want to do is take the same mean-spirited policies that we’ve implemented over the years and we want to codify them,” she said. “I can only assume that the motive behind this is truly malice of intent.”

 

O’Donnell said welfare policies embraced by Brownback led 6,000 people who had been on TANF to obtain a job in 2014, and criticism expressed by some senators about intent of the legislation was misplaced.

 

“I'm sad that words like diabolical, spite, evil, malicious, elitist have been brought up,” O’Donnell said. “For those kinds of words — that hurts.”

 

He was speaking, in part, about remarks delivered by Kelly and Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City.

 

“This is a troubling elitism here that this body is embracing during what, for many of us, is holy week,” Haley said. “We really have to look in the mirror. We can’t say something on Wednesday and shift gears on Sunday and think somebody isn't paying attention.”

 

The House approved a different version of the bill. Senators debated more than a dozen amendments — defeating most. The chamber did approve an amendment sought by Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, reducing to $25 the maximum daily withdrawal a TANF recipient could make by ATM. Currently, there is no limit on daily withdrawals. Before that amendment, the bill imposed a cap on withdrawals at $60 each day.

 

Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, argued against that change, noting some people used TANF aid to pay rent and utility bills. The amendment would require Kansans to make multiple trips to an ATM to secure sufficient cash to cover those obligations, she said.

“This is ludicrous,” Faust-Goudeau said. “It is outrageous. This amendment is totally unrealistic.”

 

Senators rejected Faust-Goudeau's amendment to delete from the bill authority for the Kansas Department for Children and Families to issue photograph identification cards for people receiving food benefits. The agency could issue a photo ID only if the recipient consented.

“This is a great tool for fraud prevention,” said Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, R-Shawnee.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, proposed an amendment — it failed — dropping most of the bill's text and mandating the Social Services Policy Council created by Brownback examine policy reforms in the bill.

 

“These are the experts that should look at these policies,” Hensley said. “There are some monumental issues here.”

 

The Senate rejected an amendment that would have required companies providing job training to Kansas welfare recipients to track job placement and salaries of people going through those programs.

 

In addition, senators defeated an amendment proposed by Kelly to grant the secretary of DCF with authority to extend access to food stamps by an able-bodied adult without dependents beyond the three-month limit in cases of emergency or recession. Under the Senate’s base bill, a TANF recipient could receive no more than 36 months of assistance in a lifetime. A hardship extension of no more than 12 months could be approved by DCF if, for example, a person was involved in domestic violence. The maximum benefit had been 48 months. Adults applying for TANF would be required by the bill to complete a work program assessment as specified by DCF.

 

No TANF cash aid could be spent out-of-state or anywhere for expenditures in a liquor store, casino, jewelry store, tattoo or body piercing parlor, spa, massage parlor, nail salon, lingerie shop, tobacco paraphernalia store, psychic or fortune telling business, bail bond company, video arcade, movie theater, swimming pool, cruise ship, theme park, dog or horse racing facility or sexually oriented retail business.

 

If an individual committed TANF fraud, child-care fraud or found guilty of theft after July 1, all adults in that family unit would be permanently ineligible for TANF assistance. Those households would designate a person to manage TANF benefits earmarked for children in that family. Persons convicted of two felonies involving controlled substances would be disqualified for life from receiving food stamps

 

Tim Carpenter can be reached at (785) 295-1158 or timothy.carpenter@cjonline.com.

Follow Tim on Twitter@TimVCarpenter. Read Tim's blog.

 

Paid for by Michael O'Donnell for Sedgwick County, Linda Kizzire, Treasurer.