By John Celock
The Kansas House of Representatives passed welfare reform legislation Thursday afternoon following a debate where opponents said the House was being cut out of discussions.
The House voted 87-35 to approve legislation that would codify many of the regulatory changes that Gov. Sam Brownback (R) put into place on the state’s welfare reform policies. Among the changes in the bill are a 36 month lifetime limit on benefits with a chance for a 12 month hardship extension, a daily $25 limit on ATM withdrawal with a benefits card, a new limits on where benefits can be spent, changes to drug felony convictions and receiving benefits and a three month limit on a woman staying home with a newborn while on benefits before going back to work. Opponents said that the bill was locking out full House debate and the bill would hurt residents, while supporters stressed the bill was a House bill with Senate tweaks and that the bill will help Kansans. The bill now heads to Brownback.
“This is serious good policy for the state of Kansas. I understand that we need to help folks when they are down,” House Majority Caucus Chairman Travis Couture-Lovelady (R-Palco) said in the debate “We need to give them the so called hand up. There nothing better than getting these people up on their feet than getting them a job.”
The bill had been approved earlier today by the state Senate following a lengthy seven-hour debate Wednesday on the bill, including multiple unsuccessful amendments from Democrats. While the House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee had heard the bill and passed legislation last month on the subject, the committee bill did not go to the full House. The Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee created a similar bill to the House version and tucked it into another House bill in a procedure known as a “gut and go.” Under legislative rules the House could only vote to agree or disagree with the Senate version, a move criticized by Democrats and moderate Republicans on Thursday.
“Colleagues this seems to be the year of disenfranchising the House. I know you laugh Mr. Speaker that’s how I feel as someone in this body that continues to hear that a bill goes through the Senate and brought to us without having the opportunity for the House to hear the bill,” Rep. Barbara Bollier (R-Mission Hills). “My constituents did not elect me or you to be disenfranchised period. If you can defend that but I am aghast that my House colleagues would give up the right of discussion. He will not let me to allow me to come and discuss my concerns.”
House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs (D-Kansas City) said that he feared that Kansas was getting a “unicameral Legislature” with a series of Senate bills coming to the House for debate. Earlier on Thursday lawmakers had heard similar criticism over the state budget being mainly a Senate bill being negotiated in conference without a full House debate on the budget. The House has taken similar steps with a “gut and go” on other bills this year including changes to the current state budget and legislation that replaced the state’s current school funding formula and replaced it with a block grants programs. On those bills the Senate only could vote up or down on the House’s work.
Burroughs said he wants to do work on the House floor. He questioned if his colleagues are afraid of offending someone.
“Is there so much fear in this chamber that we cannot come together in this chamber and do things for Kansas citizens because we’re afraid that we might do something that those are paying our way here might find offensive,” Burroughs said. “I am here to debate, I want to talk about policy. I want to get my hands dirty. You are not allowing us to do our job.”
Couture-Lovelady stressed that the House had plenty of chances to craft the bill, noting several days of Commerce Committee hearings on the bill, along with that committee working on the bill. He said the Senate adopted many of the House ideas. Couture-Lovelady is a member of the House Commerce Committee.
“This was a bill we had in House Commerce Committee. The changes the Senate made are the changes we had in House Commerce,” Couture-Lovelady said. “We spent several days working the bill, we had hearings. The Senate Health Committee took our bill and tweaked a few things and the full Senate tweaked a full things. We have not had it on the floor but we had significant House input.”
Bollier said that she did not believe that the Commerce Committee discussing the bill was the equivalent to the full House since most of the House is not on the committee.
Among the changes the Senate made to the House committee proposals was the $25 daily limit on ATM withdrawals. The House committee had originally adopted a proposal from Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) for a daily withdrawal limit of $60 a day. The Senate amended the bill Wednesday to make it $25 a day. Sen. Caryn Tyson (R-Parker) offered the $25 amendment.
Senators had objected to the limit noting that ATMs provide funds in $20 increments. They noted that a limit would hurt those trying to pay rent by requiring them to withdraw $20-25 a day to receive money for a money order. They noted that it could take 24 days to obtain the average $600 in monthly rent.
Claeys objected to that in a floor speech Thursday, saying that recipients can still use their cards to obtain money orders and also can withdraw money as change when using it in an approved store.
“There are other avenues to access cash in addition to ATMs,” Claeys said. “People can go to Dillon’s to get a money order. People can get cash back when they go to a register.”
Claeys said that the limit is a way to prevent those with benefits from withdrawing funds and spending it on items outside of those needed for their families. The bill includes new provisions on where funds cannot be spent including swimming pools, lingerie stores, cruises, movie theaters, tattoos, body piercings and theme parks.
Rep. Barbara Ballard (D-Lawrence) questioned why swimming pools were included since a pool could be used for exercise and exercise was a priority for the state. During the Commerce Committee hearing, Couture-Lovelady, who sponsored the amendment in committee, had said that exercise facilities such as yoga studios would be allowed since it was exercise.
House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee Chairman Mark Hutton (R-Wichita) told Ballard that the pool concern was the definition of what is a pool.
“The concern is it is a broad term. It can encompass that it could be a small municipal pool or a water park,” Hutton said. “The concern is that this is public funds. The desire was that this money be spent on the necessities of life.”
Ballard questioned the need for changes. She said that most people are not trying to defraud the system. She said that they want to help their families.
“There may be some people who are fraudulent. But I think you will find that in every occupation and every walk of life,” she said. “For those people who trying to help themselves and trying to help their families. They need childcare to go to school or go to work. We should not be denying them those services. I don’t think people are proud to be on assistance. They are not bragging to their friends that they are on it. Some people are on it because they have a hardship and have nothing else. We should not be taking that opportunity.”
Ballard questioned why the bill was heard by the Commerce Committee and not the Social Services Budget Committee, which she said would be the best spot to have the bill. She said that during her service on the social service budget panel she has heard from many people on assistance who have been able to do well for their lives on assistance.
“They are proud that they can hold their head up high. They can get a degree and their children can see them do well,” Ballard said. “They are a role model for their children. Lets not stifle them for a few people who did not do right.”
Both Couture-Lovelady and Claeys talked about the people they heard from during the Commerce Committee hearing on the bill who have said their lives have been changed by obtained assistance and then moving off the program. Claeys noted in the debate that three residents from Salina told the committee about how the assistance has helped them obtain job training and new jobs.
Couture-Lovelady talked about several of those who testified and programs for job assistance and training offered by the state. He said that one couple in Topeka took advantage of a manufacturing training program with a company and have obtained good paying jobs and have moved off of assistance. He also cited the story of Valerie Cahill, who testified.
“Last year Valerie Cahill and her son were living in poverty and on assistance,” he told the House. “With the DCF training program she is now working and off assistance. Valerie is an inspiration.”
Claeys also said that since many of the changes included in the bill have been used on a regulatory basis by the Department of Children and Families for the last several years he questioned why it is being objected to in the Legislature. He said the programs have worked.
“The sky has not been falling because of this policy has been in place for four years,” Claeys said.
Opponents said the policies are hurting families, noting that many are being transferred off of assistance but quality of life is not improving for them. They questioned the three-year lifetime benefit noting that the federal government provides for a five-year limit. Under the bill, a family can ask for an addition year in the case of a hardship.
Both Hutton and Claeys said during the debate that the average family is off of assistance in 18 months.
Opponents also cited rules that would limit a mother to three months at home with a newborn instead of the year allowed under federal welfare guidelines. They said that the first year is critical for a child and noted it is hard to obtain childcare for a three month old. Under the plan a mother would have to return to work after three months if on benefits.
Supporters of the bill touted a provision that would allow a mother who also went to school to only need to work 15 hours a week to receive benefits.
Claeys told The Celock Report following the vote that the state needs to provide a “safety net” for those in need. He cited the stories of the Salina residents who testified that the program was helping people. At the same time, he said that the state needs to address fraud.
“These are good people, neighbors, friends, in some cases family, who deserve a chance to succeed,” Claeys told The Celock Report. “But there are some folks who choose to game our system and commit fraud that hurts the good people who play by the rules and the taxpayers who finance the system.”
Ballard said that she felt the bill was being “punitive” in nature. Burroughs said that only a few people were actually defrauding the system and the bill is hurting others.
“We owe it to those who are crying out in need of assistance,” Burroughs said in the debate. “We should not be punishing them for the needs of a few.”
Claeys insisted after the vote that the bill was not about punishing people.
“This bill isn’t about punishing people in need, it’s about providing a focused system that only provides for those in need and protects taxpayers from fraud and abuse,” he said.
Following the vote Couture-Lovelady praised the bill as significant in the area of state-based welfare reform.
“This bill is one of the most significant welfare reform efforts to pass in the country in recent memory. The welfare to work program will help people get off government assistance and back taking care of their families without being dependent on the government,” Couture-Lovelady told The Celock Report. “There is nothing more empowering than being self sufficient and providing for your family without the government dependence. The bill also puts in important reforms concerning fraud to ensure that the temporary assistance goes only to those that need it. It isn’t fair to those on the program that genuinely need the help to leave the huge loopholes that can be abused by the bad actors”
Burroughs also questioned why the bill is being passed when Brownback is stressing a need to help families. He said that he finds the bill and the policies as hurting families in need. Burroughs’ theme was cited by other opponents of the bill.
Rep. Carolyn Bridges (D-Wichita) raised questions over the bill, noting that the parents of a newborn would not have the time to get job training with a small child. She also questioned the fees needed to obtain a money order and that would come out of the welfare benefits.
Rep. John Wilson (D-Lawrence) said that the policies have reduced DCF caseloads but have not helped families. He also said he believes that the bill will contribute to the cycle of poverty.
“If we limit it for children today they will be tomorrow’s poor adults,” Wilson said in the debate.
Couture-Lovelady quoted President Ronald Reagan in telling his colleagues why the bill was needed.
“As President Reagan said the best welfare program is getting a good paying job,” he said. “This bill continues to push folks to get back on their feet, and supporting their families.”