Senate debates welfare, but passes Vt. budget
By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau | May 03,2013
MONTPELIER — With a $5.3 billion budget proposal, the controversy in the Senate on Thursday centered on a provision with almost no fiscal impact at all.
The issue of whether to impose a five-year limit on welfare benefits continues to elicit opposition from lawmakers concerned about its effects on the poor. The majority of a three-hour debate on the Senate’s version of the fiscal year 2014 spending plan Thursday focused primarily on whether the 60-month cap would expose recipients to undue hardship.
Sen. Anthony Pollina, a Washington County Progressive/Democrat, said the budget called not only for implementation of the caps, but also a study on their effects. He said lawmakers should consider awaiting the results of that study before proceeding with the plan, especially considering that the time limits will result in negligible savings next year.
“I don’t see us as facing any kind of emergency situation to act immediately on something that is relatively new to most of us … before we understand what we’re doing,” Pollina said.
Supporters of the provisions, however, say the Senate plan has been loaded with safeguards — many added by the House — that will limit the impact of the caps to “freeloading” beneficiaries who are simply “unwilling” to get a job.
The divide over welfare reform notwithstanding, the floor session marked one of the most passive budget debates in recent memory, and ended with broad bipartisan support for the spending plan. The 24-4 vote reflected support from across the ideological spectrum, including a majority of the seven-member Republican caucus.
Sen. Tim Ashe, a Democrat/Progressive from Chittenden County, called the legislation “a source of pride for this whole body.”
Two of the “no” votes from Republicans were intended more to protest items not included in the budget than to condemn things it contained. Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning said his opposition stems from the Shumlin administration’s unwillingness to provide a financing plan earlier this year for the single-payer health care system the governor aims to have in place by 2017.
“What we haven’t spoken about in the many hours of conversation that’s taken place here today is the elephant in room, and that is health care,” Benning said.
Sen. Peg Flory, a Rutland County Republican, said her opposition stems from the budget’s silence on the “ever increasing” cost of public education.
The legislation now heads to a conference committee, where House and Senate lawmakers will resolve the relatively small number of differences between their respective plans.
The proposal for time limits on Reach Up differs dramatically from the one put forth by Gov. Peter Shumlin earlier this year. Not only would it delay the caps until next year, it would establish a slew of “hardship” conditions under which beneficiaries who exceed the cap would be able to continue receiving benefits.
The Senate has also added language that would allow even recipients without a hardship to continue receiving benefits by performing community service.
Sen. Dick Sears, a Bennington County Democrat and longtime member of the Appropriations Committee, said the Senate has been working for years to reform the Reach Up program, only to be rebuffed by the House. He said Shumlin’s own time on the Appropriations Committee — the governor is a former senator — no doubt gave rise to the administration’s welfare reform proposal.
“Quite frankly I don’t think (the Senate plan) goes far enough,” Sears said. “But in the spirit of compromise, we moved in the direction of providing deferments, providing protection.”
Sears said the body ought to be guided “by three principles: making sure those who were willing would get the help they need, and those who were uwilling (didn’t), and those who were unable got a deferment.”
Sen. Jane Kitchel, a Caledonia County Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the time limit may provide the incentive parents need to pursue a career, reducing dramatically the chance that their children will also end up in poverty.
“We are troubled when we hear a parent say ‘Reach Up gives me a reason not to work,’” Kitchel said.
The Senate version of the Reach Up proposal has also eliminated the bulk of an administration plan that would have eliminated eight caseworker positions at the Vermont Department of Labor next year, and reallocated the funds to substance abuse treatment programs that would be administered by a private contractors.
The caseworkers are dedicated solely to helping Reach Up recipients find work. The Vermont State Employee Association held a press conference decrying the proposal, and lauded the Senate for adding language that would reduce the position reduction from eight to two.
“We thank the Senate for listening to us and for its compromise proposal that the Department of Labor maintain the Reach Up services we provide,” employee Diane Lackey said in a statement.