‘There is irreparable harm’: Pa. Supreme Court considers temporarily restoring cash assistance for poor Pennsylvanians

Members of the Poor People's Campaign called on lawmakers to increase the state's General Assistance benefit at a rally in the state Capitol. (Capital-Star photo by Elizabeth Hardison)

PITTSBURGH — The state Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday for and against granting an injunction that would — at least temporarily — bring back cash assistance for poor Pennsylvanians.

The program, known as General Assistance, ended on Aug. 1 after the General Assembly voted to eliminate it as part of the summer budget process. Gov. Tom Wolf signed the measure, which also included a key hospital assessment that brings in $165 million in revenue annually.

Before its elimination, General Assistance provided roughly $200 a month to nearly 12,000 Pennsylvanians with disabilities, fleeing domestic violence, and in treatment for addiction.

Two nonprofits that serve poor Pennsylvanians — Community Legal Services (CLS) in Philadelphia and Disability Rights Pennsylvania — filed a lawsuit in July, claiming the legislation violated the state Constitution. They also sought a preliminary injunction to keep General Assistance going.

That request was denied by Commonwealth Court, which found it did not meet two necessary standards: proving “irreparable harm” and likelihood of success. The groups then appealed the decision to the state’s highest appellate court.

In Pittsburgh on Wednesday, Maria Pulzetti, an attorney with CLS, said the lower court erred on both accounts.

“There is irreparable harm,” Pulzetti said, noting that to qualify for General Assistance, a person must have less than $250 in countable assets.

She pointed to the first time Pennsylvania eliminated General Assistance, in 2012 under Gov. Tom Corbett. Nonprofits that work with people in poverty said former recipients returned to violent partners and were unable to be reunified with children in the foster care system.

‘People can’t afford to bathe themselves’: What life is like for Pennsylvanians who lost cash assistance

Justice Debra Todd asked, isn’t it “commonsense” that people in poverty will be harmed by taking away their only income?

Christopher Lewis, an attorney for Blank Rome representing the state Department of Human Services, said the harm would be “indirect,” as the court has ruled in employment cases. Some of the justices seemed wary of the argument.

“We can’t agree if it’s raining,” Justice Max Baer said. “But I agree there’s irreparable harm.”

The seven justices also dug into the second question: whether the legislation as passed violates the state Constitution.

“The statute is hard to read,” Baer said, as he questioned whether the bill adheres to the so-called single-subject rule.

Lewis argued that the budget-enabling bill, which amended the state’s Human Services Code and eliminated General Assistance, does have an “overarching” unifying subject: medical care for low-income individuals and medical assistance.

Pulzetti disagreed, saying the Legislature employed the same kind of “logrolling” that was seen in the 2012 bill, which was overturned by state Supreme Court in 2018.

In that instance, the court ruled that the bill was not considered on the proper number of days. Justices also rejected the argument that there was a “unifying subject” of the bill, as required by law.

Lewis rejected that argument, saying the 2012 legislation involved multiples programs that went beyond medical care.

Pulzetti said there’s at least a “substantial” legal question for the courts to consider, which is why an injunction should be granted.

The past and the future

The Wolf administration reinstated General Assistance in fall 2018, following the state Supreme Court’s decision.

Members of the GOP-controlled Legislature then made eliminating the program a priority.

In March, Rep. Stan Saylor, chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee, said the House was “not going to pay for something that we’ve had no discussion in or determination in.”

“The court did not order us to start paying cash assistance again,” the York County Republican said.

Rep. George Dunbar, R-Westmoreland, introduced a bill to eliminate the program, which he feared lacked “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,” he said.

Former recipients of General Assistance said they spent the money on hygiene products like soap, transportation, and housing.

A vote in the Senate on the bill led to a dramatic and intense clash between Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Democrat.

Ultimately, the legislation passed the House 106-95, and the Senate 26-24.

Democrats have recently introduced bills in both chambers to create a new program that would mirror General Assistance.

A ruling from the state Supreme Court on the injunction could come at any time. The main case will continue in Commonwealth Court.

Associate Editor Sarah Anne Hughes covers the governor and Pennsylvania's agencies. Before joining the Capital-Star, she was the state capitol reporter for Billy Penn and The Incline, and a 2018 corps member for Report for America. She was previously managing editor of Washington City Paper, editor-in-chief of DCist, and a national blogger for The Washington Post.

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