By Michael Norton

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

COHASSET -- Welfare reform, a popular topic on Beacon Hill in 2013 that slipped off the radar for most of this year, burst back onto the Legislature's agenda Wednesday night as legislative negotiators ended a months-long conference committee and filed a compromise bill.

According to an aide to Senate President Therese Murray, the Senate plans to adopt the proposal during its session Thursday afternoon. The Senate on Thursday may also send Gov. Deval Patrick legislation raising the minimum wage from $8 an hour to $11 an hour in three increments, a bill that the governor is expected to sign.

The House and Senate each passed welfare reform bills last year aimed at both closing off avenues for fraud and abuse and extending supports and assistance to help more low-income families move off public assistance.

In a statement, Murray said the bill makes "thoughtful changes."

"Not only will we be able to help more of our residents enter the workforce and lead self-sustaining and independent lives, but we are also putting in place measures to support the health of our economy as a whole," Murray said. "However, as we know from past experience, this is an issue that requires constant revisiting. If we want to ensure an effective system, we must keep this in mind moving forward."

According to a bill summary, the legislation creates a program to connect "able-bodied" individuals with full-time jobs before they start receiving benefits, revives a "full employment program" aimed at placing benefit recipients in full-time jobs, and makes employers who hire individuals from the full-employment program eligible for a health care subsidy for one year followed by a tax credit of $100 per month up to $1,200.

The bill requires the Department of Transitional Assistance to have specialists assigned to help high-risk recipients, and calls for the development of a program to allow benefit recipients to save money, outside of the asset limit of $2,500, toward first, last and security rent payments and for education as they transition off public benefits.

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. Under the latter measure, store owners could face license suspensions.

The bill also changes the number of days in which a temporary absence from the state creates a presumption that residency has been abandoned, requires the calculation of the five-year benefit cap on the family rather than separately for each parent, and requires verification of work participation forms by a third party under the penalties of perjury. The legislation changes the exemption from the work requirement for women in the last four months of pregnancy to the last month of pregnancy unless there is a documented medical issue, the summary said.

The bill also changes eligibility for the teen living program for pregnant teens who currently must be 120 days from their due date to be eligible. Under the bill, they will become eligible at the start of their pregnancy.

In a bid to ensure notification of changes before they occur, the bill requires the Department of Transitional Assistance to file a report with the Legislature 60 days before issuing or changing benefit-altering regulations.

Under the bill, the DTA would also be required to share information with federal, state and local law enforcement and the trial court about benefit recipients who are the subject of felony warrants, according to the bill summary.

The department is also required under the bill to refer cases involving multiple even-dollar transactions, full benefit withdrawals and instances of the use of direct cash assistance in states other than Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Vermont and Maine to the DTA's Program Integrity Division or the Bureau of Special Investigations in the state auditor's office. 

The conference committee appeared to offer two bills to accomplish the welfare reform goals, an appropriations bill with about $15 million in spending (S 2212) and a policy bill laying out the systemic changes (S 2211).

Policy bill: https://malegislature.gov/Bills/188/Senate/S2211

Appropriations bill: https://malegislature.gov/Bills/188/Senate/S2212