Pat Albright repurposes a sign to protest the elimination of General Assistance. (Photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)
Updated 7:50 p.m.
House and Senate Democrats sent a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf on Thursday asking him to make an emergency declaration to aid recipients of a cash assistance program eliminated this week.
In his own letter, Wolf assured the lawmakers a formal declaration “would not have an effect beyond the work we are already doing.”
The Democrats’ letter was sent on the same day that a Commonwealth Court judge denied a preliminary injunction to keep General Assistance going as a lawsuit over its demise is adjudicated.
“We have heard story after story about how the [General Assistance] program has lifted people out of poverty and turned their lives around. It has kept people in homes, provided life saving healthcare, or transportation to get people access to care,” the lawmakers’ letter reads. “We need to find a way to continue to help these people and an emergency declaration will help get the right people to the table for coordinating the response.”
The letter was signed by 20 of the Senate’s 22 Democrats. An identical House version was signed by 54 of the chamber’s 93 Democrats.
The program, which provided monthly cash payments of about $200 to some of the state’s most vulnerable residents — including individuals who are disabled or in addiction treatment — is set to end today, Aug. 1. It was cut as part of the 2019 state budget.
Democrats do not expect a disaster declaration to provide new funding. Instead, they hope data sharing between agencies could route individuals formerly served by General Assistance into existing programs and prevent any former recipients from falling through the cracks.
In his letter, Wolf thanked the lawmakers for sharing their concerns, and noted “my staff and agency personnel have been in near constant contact with many of you regarding the end of the program.”
“Over the last month, our agencies have coordinated with social service agencies to help the approximately 11,000 people affected by the legislature eliminating general assistance,” Wolf said in his letter. To the best of our ability, we are connecting people with available resources and making the nonprofit community aware of the potential for increased need.”
Under the circumstances, a Disaster Declaration would not have an effect beyond the work we are already doing. A Disaster Declaration cannot be used to create new appropriations or fund programs that have been eliminated by law. We cannot provide additional information to third parties about the recipients, and we do not have a mechanism to extend non-appropriated funding to this population. Commonwealth agencies are already focusing on coordination and collaboration to provide relief to these citizens. The Department of Human Services will be reaching out to all members in the coming days to offer a webinar for interested members and staff on identifying reputable organizations and resources in your districts.
Legislative Republicans made ending the program a priority, citing a 2011 report by former Democratic Auditor General Jack Wagner on the use of electronic benefits cards out of state. Wagner did not recommended getting rid of General Assistance.
The GOP-controlled General Assembly previously cut the program in 2012. Five years later, in 2018, the bill eliminating General Assistance was thrown out by the state Supreme Court, which found it was not considered on the required number of days.
Community Legal Services in Philadelphia and Disability Rights Pennsylvania have launched a similar suit, claiming the bill combined a number of issues in an unconstitutional way.
“Our clients, people with disabilities, survivors of domestic violence, and other Pennsylvanians who are struggling to make ends meet are losing their only source of income,” CLS attorney Maria Pulzetti said in a statement. “Their safety, well-being, and dignity are at risk and we fear that many will become homeless.”
Pulzetti added that, “The fight to preserve this vital program is not over.”
Democrats have rallied around the program, saying that ending it is an attack on some of the state’s most vulnerable populations.
A Senate floor fight over the bill turned into a viral screaming match when Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman broke chamber rules to let Sen. Katie Muth, D-Chester, read a letter from a General Assistance recipient.
Wolf has often touted the benefits of inter-agency cooperation. He declared a statewide disaster around opioid abuse in 2018 to help agencies work together to address drug use.
On Wednesday, Wolf announced an executive order setting up a council to coordinate state human services and health agencies to better take care of “vulnerable communities,” like institutionalized individuals young and old.
The governor has frequently expressed support for the General Assistance program, but signed the bill eliminating it after it was paired with a reauthorization of a key Philadelphia hospital assessment. In a June interview with WITF, Wolf called the bundling a “smart tactic.”
The House and Senate Democrats’ letter addresses the legislative gamesmanship.
They write that they “strongly believe that had [Wolf] been given an opportunity to veto House Bill 33 without the additional budgetary implications that were loaded into the bill late in the process, you would have stood with GA recipients. But threatened with the lose of millions of dollars for our hospitals, we understand that you were provided no choice.
“However, there are other resources at your disposal to help lessen the pain Pennsylvanians will feel after today.”
Capital-Star Associate Editor Sarah Anne Hughes contributed to this story.
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