By Colleen Quinn
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- A compromise bill reforming the state's welfare system was delayed a week on Thursday when a South Shore senator objected to the short timeframe lawmakers were given to look over the final version hammered out by a Democrat-controlled conference committee.
Sen. Robert Hedlund, a Weymouth Republican, said he was a member of the panel that met formally only once last November, where they voted to close the negotiations to the public. Hedlund complained that advocates lobbying lawmakers seemed to have more input in the negotiations than committee members.
Throughout 2013, lawmakers in both the House and Senate spent months discussing, debating and working out details to come up with a wide-ranging package of reforms to the state's welfare system aimed at preventing fraud and abuse, while finding ways to get people off public benefits and into a job.
"However, the manner in which the bill is presented to us today was abrupt to say the least," Hedlund said before making a motion to delay action on the bill until June 26. The compromise bill was filed Wednesday evening.
After 15 minutes of debate, the Senate voted to delay, on a voice vote.
Hedlund argued that legislation of "this magnitude" should have more time for review, and said the conference committee's version of the legislation is weaker than what the Senate passed. He particularly mentioned a section that passed the Senate, but was left out of the final bill stipulating that that no one would be eligible for public housing unless they were a legal citizen.
Sen. Michael Barrett, a Lexington Democrat, said that section raised concerns for the conference committee because the state has agreed to allow victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake to seek shelter in Massachusetts.
Sen. Jennifer Flanagan (D-Leominster), another member of the conference committee, said lawmakers have debated reforms for years. "The bill before us is a true compromise," she said.
Sen. Stephen Brewer, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said a conference committee's job is to blend the two versions of legislation.
"No one gets everything they want," he said.
Brewer said welfare will "never be a perfect system, but I believe this system, these reforms are going to make a huge difference of accountability, transparency, and have people go back to work as best as possible."
The legislation includes $18.5 million for job training programs, and creates a program to connect "able-bodied" individuals with full-time jobs before they start receiving benefits. It revives a full employment program aimed at placing benefit recipients in full-time jobs. Employers who hire individuals from the full employment program would be eligible for a health care subsidy for one year followed by a tax credit of $100 per month up to $1,200.
"We want them to be able to take care of their families. We also provide job training to make sure people are educated in the field," Flanagan said. "We require applicants to seek employment. We don't want them simply staying home collecting their benefits."
The Department of Transitional Assistance would be required to have specialists assigned to help high-risk recipients. It also establishes a program to allow welfare recipients to save money, above the asset limit of $2,500 toward first, last and security rent payments and for education as they transition off public assistance.
The bill also reduces the period for benefit extensions, requires self-declarations of residency to be signed under the penalties of perjury, bans self-declarations from being used as the only verification form of eligibility, and increases penalties for store owners who knowingly allow the purchase of prohibited products or services, such as Lottery tickets, with an EBT card. Store owners could face license suspensions.