The state House voted Wednesday to eliminate a cash assistance program for adults with disabilities, those in treatment for addiction, and people fleeing domestic violence.
The 106-95 vote came after more than a hour of impassioned pleas from Democrats and at-times angry rebuttals from Republicans, who took offense to the framing of the debate.
“I know my colleagues care,” said Rep. Greg Rothman, R-Cumberland, after listing off existing benefits programs like food stamps and heating assistance. “This is about accountability.”
Several Democrats, including Rep. Matt Bradford, D-Montgomery, said they would welcome proposals from Republicans to prevent fraud and misuse of the program.
“No, this isn’t accountability,” Bradford, Democratic chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee, said. “This is cruel.”
General Assistance was first eliminated in 2012 by Gov. Tom Corbett and the Republican-led Legislature. That law, a budget-related code bill, was overturned by the Pa. Supreme Court in 2018, because it was not considered on the required number of days. The court also rejected that the legislation adhered to the General Assembly’s single-subject rule.
The bill approved Wednesday would end the program effective August 1.
Before it was eliminated, General Assistance cost roughly $150 million annually and served more than 68,000 people. Of those, the vast majority had a permanent disability and were awaiting federal benefits.
Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, a Republican supporter of General Assistance, urged lawmakers to find a workable compromise.
“There are parts of this program we can look at saving,” DiGirolamo, of Bucks County, said.
As proponents note, the state is reimbursed by the federal government when a person is approved for Social Security disability benefits. According to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. George Dunbar, R-Westmoreland, the state was reimbursed in 20 percent of cases.
“This is not a free program,” he said on the House floor.
Wolf’s proposal to reinstate the program asks for much less than $150 million. His updated budget request seeks $34.177 million in the 2019-20 fiscal year to cover an anticipated 13,759 average monthly recipients and $12.7 million to cover the current fiscal year.
But the bill that passed Wednesday does not simply eliminate General Assistance.
Democrats were faced with what one called a “Faustian bargain” Tuesday in the Appropriations Committee, when Republicans amended the legislation to increase state dollars for a senior-focused aid program and extend an assessment that directs millions of dollars to Philadelphia and its hospitals.
Dunbar said Tuesday the amendment is Republicans showing how money once allocated to General Assistance could be otherwise used.
“Essentially what it’s showing is by eliminating cash assistance, we have extra dollars,” Dunbar told the Capital-Star. “This is what we’ll utilize dollars for. We’re taking care of the exact same people we would be under cash assistance.”
On Tuesday, ranking Appropriations Democrat Matt Bradford, of Montgomery County, compared the changes to a deal with the devil, before the bill was amended and advanced by a party-line vote.
“I don’t think we should pit one [program] against the other,” Bradford said.
In a statement to the Capital-Star, Wolf administration spokesman J.J. Abbott said Gov. Tom Wolf still hopes to save the program.
“The budget process and negotiations are still ongoing. Republicans have made eliminating General Assistance a top priority despite Governor Wolf’s clear resistance and multiple offers to negotiate a compromise,” he said.