By John Celock
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) signed what advocates are calling one of the “most significant welfare reform bills” in the country into law Thursday, capping what has been a contentious debate over the subject that spilled into the national arena.
Brownback’s actions Thursday codify a series of welfare reforms that his administration has been putting into place over the years, along with enacting a series of welfare changes. Among the changes contained in the bill is a three-year lifetime cap on welfare with an optional fourth hardship year, a $25 a day limit on ATM withdrawals using a benefit card, requiring mothers receiving benefits to return to work three months after giving birth, provisions to allow those with felony drug convictions to receive welfare as long as they meet certain requirements, provisions to ensure that children in homes where a parent is prohibited from receiving welfare can continue to receive benefits and new restrictions on where the benefits can be used.
“This is the most significant welfare reform bills to be signed into law in the country in quite some time,” state House Majority Caucus Chairman Travis Couture-Lovelady (R-Palco), who helped design the bill, told The Celock Report Thursday. “Codification of DCF’s current practices will make it hard for an administration to come in and return to the Sebelius era practices of no restrictions, no work requirements, and no accountability.”
The bill has become a lightening rod issue with Democrats and moderate Republicans opposing the bill, which they have said will hurt poor people in Kansas and continue the cycle of poverty. The state Senate held a seven-hour debate on the legislation, which featured a series of Democratic amendments to change the bill, along with Democratic senators speaking out on the details and marathon questioning of Sen. Michael O’Donnell (R-Wichita), who was carrying the bill on the Senate floor, over the details of the bill.
Rep. Jim Ward (D-Wichita), a leading House critic of the bill, told The Celock Report that he does not believe the legislation will do anything for the state.
“It’s mean spirited and a mean bill,” Ward said. “It reinforces a negative stereotypes and serves no public function.”
Ward said that provisions contained in the bill that ban the use of welfare benefits on a series of items including tobacco, tattoos, cruises, movie theaters, swimming pools, horse and dog racing, lingerie stores, theme parks and strip clubs, reinforces what he said is a stereotype of welfare recipients using the funds in these ways.
“No one thinks we should use public assistance to buy cruise tickets but no one does that,” Ward said. “It’s only in there because they want to make people believe that.”
The amendment was added by Republicans who said that it was needed to order to prevent taxpayer welfare dollars from being spent on luxury items. In addition the bill prevents benefit cards from being used out of state.
The amendment was sponsored by Couture-Lovelady and added by the House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee during the drafting of the bill last month. Supporters of the provision point to a study by Kansas Watchdog that showed $43,000 in welfare abuse over a three-month period as an example of what they are trying to prevent. The report showed the benefits being spent at strip clubs, casinos and smoke shops.
Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina), a Commerce Committee member who helped draft the bill, said the language is necessary in order to promote the goal of those receiving benefits entering the workforce.
“Restricting purchases to exclude alcohol, cigarettes and other low-priority purchases puts the focus on providing basic necessities while working toward the goal of entering the workforce,” Claeys told The Celock Report. “I can’t think of lower priority purchases for an individual trying to lift themselves out of poverty than strip clubs and booze.”
The provision has touched off a national debate on the Kansas welfare reform bill, which has centered almost exclusively on the cruise ship prohibition. Among the areas touched on by opponents is that cruise ships do not visit landlocked Kansas.
Claeys said that the adding of the cruise ship prohibition was done based on questions regarding the technology aspect of the purchase and not due to cruises originating in the state. He said that Royal Caribbean Cruises could be coded as the charges as being made in Kansas and not out of state. He said that while the benefit cards cannot be used if a cardholder were to purchase a cruise from Florida, due to the out of state prohibition, it would not be picked up if the system coded it as a Kansas purchase. He said that since there were questions on whether or not the technology would code the purchase as being made in Kansas, lawmakers wanted to prevent a loophole in the new law.
“We were uncertain the technology behind the coding for in or out of state so we erred on the side of closing a potential loophole to access a low-priority purchase,” Claeys said on Thursday. “Is the list complete? No, but it’s a good start at giving guidance and directing those on assistance toward meeting basic needs while getting back into the workforce.”
Royal Caribbean Cruises has a reservation center in Kansas, which could code the purchase as being made in Kansas, which has been mentioned by lawmakers in support of the provision.
Claeys took to Twitter Thursday to point to recent welfare fraud figures in Kansas.
“1073 welfare fraud cases in 2014 with $1.78m in judgments,” Claeys tweeted. “First 9 mos of 2015: $2.2m, projected to hit $2.97m by July.”
Ward took aim at the entire bill, noting that the $25 a day limit on ATM withdrawals is in reality a $20 a day limit due to ATMs not dispensing five dollar bills. He said that the provision will hurt the poor, since he said many do not have bank accounts.
“The ATM withdrawal shows the lack of understanding of how poor people do business. They don’t have bank accounts or automatic deposit,” he said. “They transact business in cash. If you’ve ever been to a Dillon’s you’ll see people buying a money order. They can still run around to five or six different places to get the money.”
Ward’s comments were in line with opponents during the House and Senate debates, who said the bill, would require those on welfare to make multiple bank trips to withdraw the funds needed for money orders to pay their rent and other bills.
Claeys, who sponsored the ATM limit amendment in the House Commerce Committee, has said that those on benefits will be able to obtain the money orders with a card. He used the House debate and previous statements to say that the new law continues to allow the use of the cards to obtain money orders.
Claeys’ original amendment set a $60 a day limit, but the Senate amended it to $25 a day following a proposal by Sen. Caryn Tyson (R-Parker). Recipients will still be able to obtain funds as change by using the benefits card as a debit card while shopping at a supermarket or other store.
Kansas Children and Families Secretary Phyllis Gilmore said at the bill signing ceremony Thursday that the ATM and purchase restrictions are a way to promote getting off of welfare, according to tweets from the ceremony.
Ward also attacked the provision that requires mothers to return to work three months after giving birth and noted that the lifetime limits should be changed. Opponents of the bill have centered on the lifetime limits, pointing to the impact the recessions since the turn of the century have had on the aviation industry in Wichita and the need for workers in that industry to obtain benefits at various points. Federal law limits benefits to five years.
Supporters have said that the bill provides a way to promote getting off of welfare and back to work. They have noted that the average welfare recipient in Kansas receives welfare for 18 months. Opponents say that the average is for a one-time use and does not count multiple uses over a lifetime.
During the House debate on the bill, supporters pointed to testimony provided to the House Commerce Committee by those on welfare under the policies implemented by Brownback, saying that it has helped them get back on their feet. Claeys used the debate to say that three Salina residents on assistance used state programs to obtain job training and new jobs, while Couture-Lovelady talked about the story of Valerie Cahill who testified.
“Last year Valerie Cahill and her son were living in poverty and on assistance.” Couture-Lovelady said during the April 2 House debate. “With the DCF training program she is now working and off assistance. Valerie is an inspiration.”
Claeys said during the debate that many of the policies contained in the new law have been in place for four years by executive order and “the sky has not been falling.”
During the House debate, though opponents took the opposite view of Claeys and Couture-Lovelady, saying the bill would hurt the poor. House Democratic Policy Chairman John Wilson (D-Lawrence) said during the debate that while the Brownback policies have reduced DCF caseloads they have not helped families and would continue the cycle of poverty.
“If we limit it for children today they will be tomorrow’s poor adults,” Wilson said during the debate.
Among the other provisions criticized by opponents are a ban on adults receiving benefits if another adult in the household has been convicted of welfare fraud. Supporters say that this would prevent those convicted of fraud of finding another way of committing fraud. Opponents said during the Senate debate that this will hurt those in the households.
During the Senate debate, O’Donnell stressed that children in the households will be protected and continue to receive benefits. He said that the children will have an adult outside the household oversee their benefits to prevent someone convicted of fraud from coming near the benefits. Senate Democrats questioned O’Donnell for roughly 90 minutes over this provision during the debate.
The process used to adopt the bill has also been criticized by opponents. The bill was originally drafted in the House Commerce Committee but did not receive a floor vote. It was then reviewed by the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee and then debated by the full Senate after being placed in a previously passed House bill, a procedure known as “gut and go.” When the bill reached the House it could only be passed or rejected with no opportunity for the full House to amend the bill. Ward said that he and others are looking at future attempts to amend provisions of the bill.
“It speaks enormously about their fear and their refusal to engage in debate of ideas which is the whole process of a representative democracy is about,” Ward said of the process. “I think we would have fixed it in the House, we would not have $25 or punish mothers of newborns. We would have taken out the cruises and jewelry and kept the other stuff. We’d fix the stereotype stuff like the cruises and jewelry that we go after and eliminate that stereotype.”
Couture-Lovelady remains bullish on the bill he worked to craft, saying that it will promote returning those on welfare to the workforce and not have a lifetime of benefits. He does not agree with Ward or other opponents that the bill is “shaming” those on welfare by including the cruise and other prohibitions. He said that it is a way to prevent abuse of the system.
“The only people who will be shamed are those who are abusing the system and taking money away from those who truly need the help,” Couture-Lovelady said.