Republican legislators weary of welfare cheats and waste are pushing an array of measures in the Legislature to cut food stamp benefits, restrict where recipients can use benefit cards and require drug testing before residents can collect assistance.

GOP leaders advocating the changes say that some Minnesotans have become too dependent on the cash payments and that this may be their best chance, while holding legislative power at the Capitol, to rein in such spending. The drive reflects similar efforts over the past year in state Capitols across the country by GOP majorities to impose new rules and limits on welfare benefits.

"We want to help you, but if you don't want to help us help you, we're not going to waste our time and money on you," said Sen. Sean Nienow, a Republican from Cambridge, who is among the leaders in the push to restrict the state's benefits.

The proposed changes are feeding a furious debate at the Capitol.

State officials and advocates for the poor say the recent recession made more Minnesotans dependent on assistance as they try to get back into the workforce. Cutting back the benefits, they say, could force more Minnesotans to slip into deep financial despair, sending more children onto the poverty rolls.

"This is a population of hardworking single parents, mostly women," said Julie Kizlik, program director for Employment Action Center's Welfare to Work Programs. "They don't want this life for their children. They're working two part-time jobs, sometimes three ... It's disheartening that [the Legislature] continues to single out this part of the population that's already facing extreme barriers and extreme challenges."

At a recent legislative hearing on the issue, protesters chanted, "You are killing our children! You are killing our children!"

Cicely Thompson startled lawmakers at the hearing when she held up her 5-month old daughter. "My child is not an animal!" she shouted.

Earlier this month, one newly elected GOP legislator, Rep. Mary Franson from Alexandria, compared Minnesota's food stamp program to feeding animals. She later apologized.

Thompson, a graduate student, said she relies on food and medical assistance from the state to support her family while she works an unpaid internship required for graduation. "All I want to do is survive, and for a while, it felt like we weren't going to be able to do that," said Thompson, who estimates the family earned $45,000 a year before the recession hit, her husband's family business folded and she decided to go back to school.

Republicans insist their proposals are not designed to harm hardworking Minnesotans who have hit a rough patch. Several Republican legislators said they campaigned on a pledge to reduce waste and fraud, and now they are in a strong position to honor it.

"My intent isn't to harm people or services," said first-term state Rep. Kurt Daudt, a Republican from Crown who is spearheading welfare overhaul proposals in the House.

Last year, Daudt pushed a change to forbid welfare recipients from using their electronic benefit cards to buy tobacco or alcohol. This year, he's pushing proposals to restrict how long families can collect benefits and to forbid people from using their benefit cards in far-away states. Daudt also wants to change the income requirements, so someone earning $10.90 an hour would no longer qualify for assistance.

'As little abuse as possible'

Daudt acknowledges that he does not believe welfare fraud is common but said he continues hearing from people who said they had seen incidents of suspected fraud and waste.

"I think the percentage of misuse and abuse is low," he said. "I think you have to have to make sure there's absolutely as little misuse and abuse as possible."

In an average month, 42,500 Minnesota families rely on state benefits and food assistance, according to the state Department of Human Services. Traditional welfare benefits account for a small fraction of the state's multibillion-dollar human services budget, about $101 million a year, plus $240 million in federal support.

A family of three -- two adults and one child with no other income -- receives $532 in cash assistance and $473 in food support, amounts that have not changed since 1986. Most recipients collect benefits less than two years.

Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson warned legislators that restricting benefits now could tip even more families into dire poverty at a time when the number of impoverished children has grown by 62 percent between 2000 to 2010.

"The majority of people [in the Minnesota Family Investment Program] do not fit a pattern of fraud, abuse and misuse," Jesson wrote recently. "They are working, but at very low-income jobs. They have serious health problems which limit their ability to hold a full-time job. They are new mothers. Or they are recently unemployed as a result of our challenging economic times."

Tatika Williams, a 43-year-old mother of three, lives a few blocks from the Capitol. Unemployed since July 2010, she supported her family on $272 a week in unemployment benefits.

"I wish they could come into my household for a couple of months before you tell me what's plenty," said Williams, who has no car, which limits her job search. "You need to walk in my shoes. They've never been where I've been."

Minnesota is among a number of states looking at clamping down on cash welfare benefits. It is one of 24 states debating drug testing for some forms of public assistance, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Four states -- Florida, Arizona, Missouri and Utah -- have welfare drug test laws. Also, 22 states have bills that would restrict the use of benefit cards, and 13, including Minnesota, have proposals for photo identification on benefit cards.

Republicans are plowing ahead with their initiatives, even though DFL Gov. Mark Dayton is likely to veto them.

"I campaigned saying I would work on welfare reform," said first-term Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Brainerd, who is pushing a proposal to double the waiting period for new residents seeking benefits. "We spent the last year trying to get our feet on the ground. This year, we can try to get some of these things passed."

Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049