A Tough Week for Progressives

Last week was a difficult one at the State House for progressives. To recap:

The House

Both the House and Senate tackled so-called welfare reform.  The House focused almost exclusively on their favorite line item with regards to the poor –“waste, fraud and abuse” — and did it not as a stand-alone bill, but shoe-horned it into the supplemental ToughWeek.jpgbudget, circumventing the committee process and hearings process.

They added a series of restrictions, like requiring photo ID and limiting spending to Massachusetts and contiguous states, and voted down all attempts by progressives, like Rep. Jonathan Hecht, to remove or ease the restrictions.  The only good news is that the House voted down most of the amendments that would have worsened the bill even further, including Rep. Shaunna O’Connell’s proposal to strip special considerations away from victims of domestic violence.

We applaud the fourteen representatives who took a stand and voted to strike photo ID (which we have opposed), but no legislators voted against the supplemental budget as a whole, because of the imperative of getting funding out to cities and towns.

The Senate

The Senate debated and passed its own welfare reform bill (SB1805) – this time a comprehensive bill focused exclusively on the issue.  The bill main goal, according to leadership, was to foster economic independence.

On the positive side, it included some provisions that would increase services and financial stability for those receiving transitional assistance.  However, the bill also imposed some restrictive and unrealistic requirements on needy families, like requiring pregnant women to continue to search for employment through the 8th month of pregnancy. Other provisions could increase homelessness (requiring parents to operate as truant officers) and harm seniors and persons with disabilities (photo ID). A very thoughtful summary of the problems with this bill can be found here.

As in the House, the bill passed overwhelmingly; only Senators Sonia Chang-Diaz and Jamie Eldridge voted “no” on final passage. Eleven senators did, however, push back and voted to remove photo ID, a position we strongly supported (but ultimately failed).

WE HAVE TWO MAJOR OBJECTIONS TO HOW THIS ALL UNFOLDED:

(1) Once again, we see the State House making bad policy.

Today, more than 800,000 residents of Massachusetts including children, disabled people and seniors receive transitional assistance of some kind. These individuals struggle to make ends meet and desperately need our help to ensure their well-being. Thousands more who are eligible for benefits do not even apply — out of lack of knowledge about the programs, fear of being stigmatized or difficulty in accessing these benefits they need.

  • A fair and effective government provides for these individuals and makes it easy for them to secure the benefits to which they are entitled.
  • A fair and effective government does not humiliate those in need, continuously questioning their integrity, even in the absence of any concrete evidence of massive fraud and abuse.
  • A fair and effective government provides the tools and training these individuals need to improve their circumstances and build a better, more secure life for themselves and their families.
  • A fair and effective government does NOT repeatedly strip funding for income eligible childcare vouchers and skills training from the budget.
  • A fair and effective government funds the agencies that are working diligently to serve our needy.

We applaud Commissioner Stacey Monahan’s aggressive agenda to correct management deficiencies at DTA and believe her agency should be provided with the support required — caseworkers, infrastructure and, perhaps, most importantly, patience in allowing her to see the program through.

Meaningful welfare reform — the kind that would actually assist people in making the transition to a more secure future — is worth doing.  The bills that passed last week don’t even begin to do the job.

(2) Once again, State House leadership is corrupting the governing process.

Important issues deserve their own bills.

On this we agree with Senate President Murray who has repeatedly refused to consider welfare reform as part of the budgeting process. Spending the taxpayers’ money and funding the things we care about (transportation, education, etc) are important in their own right — as is ensuring that transitional assistance works for the people it is supposed to help. There is simply no excuse for  carelessly tacking welfare reform to the budget, the transportation funding bill or the supplemental.  Period.

Public policy making requires input.

On the House side, the Ways and Means Committee released the welfare reform-laden supplemental late on a Friday night and issued instructions on Sunday that all amendments were due on Monday at 5 pm.

On the Senate side, a welfare related bill (SB61) calling for asset limitation restrictions to be lifted was reported out of committee on Thursday and completely transformed over the weekend by Senate Ways and Means into the comprehensive welfare reform bill the Senate President had been promising.  A press conference held on Monday at 10:30 am (and excluding advocates) was the first time anyone had heard about the specific provisions being proposed – and amendments were due Wednesday at noon.

Neither of these bills had a public hearing. No expert testimony was taken. No input even from most legislators was considered. Advocates scrambled to understand the provisions, identify the problems, find legislators to sponsor amendments and round up support for changes. Thoughtful and deliberative it was not.

Is this how we think public policy should be made?

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

No laws were broken in the process; technically, all was executed within the permissible. This tells you a great deal about the concentration of power in the legislature — and about how much or little debate and deliberation leadership really wants.

We need a better process for setting public policy — and we need rules reform to get us there.  Not a sexy issue — but it’s how good government stays good.

What’s Next?

Hard to say. The Senate is not willing to take up welfare reform as part of the supplemental budget. We will see if the House takes up the bill passed by the Senate.  Then, if we have legislation, all eyes will turn to the Governor.

Let’s tell the Governor to veto SB1805.  Let’s get back to the drawing table. We need meaningful welfare reform — the kind of reform that would actually assist people in making the transition to a more secure future.

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