Pat Albright repurposes a sign to protest the elimination of General Assistance. (Photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)
A state Senate Committee voted along party lines Monday to eliminate a cash assistance program for disabled Pennsylvanians.
The debate was similar to one that played out in the House, which voted last week to end General Assistance. The state-run program provides roughly $200 a month in cash payments, primarily to people with temporary and permanent disabilities.
Democratic Sens. Katie Muth, of Berks County, and Sharif Street, of Philadelphia, offered several amendments to provide carveouts for specific populations served by General Assistance — including domestic violence survivors, people in treatment for opioid addiction, and caregivers of people with disabilities.
All seven Republican members of the Health & Human Services Committee voted to reject the amendments, while all four Democrats voted in favor.
Committee Chairwoman Sen. Michele Brooks, R-Crawford, said Republicans voted to eliminate the program in 2012 because of issues with fraud. She pointed to a 2011 report by former Auditor General Jack Wagner, which found that public assistance recipients “made $5.2 million in out-of-state purchases or cash withdrawals in May 2010.”
It is legal to use benefit cards in other states. The report was unable to determine if any of the purchases “were invalid or illegal,” and did not specifically single out the General Assistance program.
Bill sponsor Rep. George Dunbar, R-Westmoreland, said Monday that he did not introduce the legislation because of concerns about fraud. Instead, Dunbar said, he is concerned that the program lacks “accountability.”
“If you’re essentially handing out $200 a month, that can be spent on anything, we don’t know what it’s being spent on,” Dunbar said.
Dunbar’s bill does not just eliminate the General Assistance program.
It was significantly amended last week in the House Appropriations Committee to reauthorize and expand a hospital assessment program that nets Philadelphia facilities more than $100 million a year and expires on June 30.
One Democrat described the amendments as a “Faustian bargain” designed to make the bill harder to reject.
“There are always attempts to put up roadblocks in this process, always attempts to pit competing interests against one another,” Sen. Vincent Hughes, a Philadelphia lawmaker and Democratic chair of the Appropriations Committee, said after a Monday rally to save the program.
“Our plea at this time, I think, is to not allow that to occur, for us to use every legislative maneuver available to make sure that we protect these folks and that we make sure we deal with the rest of the business that needs to be done.”
But, he added, “we shouldn’t even be having this conversation.” He also rejected that “the legislative foot can be put on the neck of individuals who deserve a little bit of help.”
Another Philadelphia Democrat, Sen. Art Haywood, said it’s his understanding the hospital assessment could be reauthorized as part of one of the budget-enabling code bills, rather than in the House bill to eliminate General Assistance.
But the program’s fate may already be decided.
The general spending budget bill advanced Monday by House Republicans assumes the elimination of General Assistance.
GOP leaders from both the House and Senate say the Wolf administration supports the plan.
“Governor Wolf consistently advocated for fully funding General Assistance, including in his February proposal and various counter-proposals during the budget negotiations,” Wolf spokesperson J.J. Abbott said by email. “Republicans prioritized eliminating this program. Governor Wolf fought to keep the program intact.”
Abbott said the governor will evaluate the House bill “once it is on his desk.”
When asked if Wolf’s support for the spending bill made him question General Assistance’s future, Hughes said, “I’m not going to accept that it’s a done deal. That’s all I’m going to say.”
General Assistance was originally eliminated in a budget-enabling, human services code bill passed as part of the 2012 budget. The Pa. Supreme Court struck down the law in 2018, ruling that it wasn’t considered on the proper number of days.
The justices also rejected that the bill had a “unifying subject” as required by the state Constitution, which reads: “No bill shall be passed containing more than one subject, which shall be clearly expressed in its title, except a general appropriation bill or a bill codifying or compiling the law or a part thereof.”
At Monday’s Senate committee hearing, Dunbar said he was not concerned that his bill would violate the single-subject rule.
“I think that historically we have had code bills come out that had more than one item in the same general area. These are all welfare code type issues,” he said. “I’m sure there will be a court challenge … but I don’t believe it violates the single-subject rule.”
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