Legislation imposing stricter Minn. welfare limits stalls in Senate committee over concerns

  • Article by: BRIAN BAKST , Associated Press
  • Updated: February 15, 2012 - 6:03 AM

ST. PAUL, Minn. - A plan that would require people new to Minnesota to wait two months rather than one before receiving welfare benefits stalled Tuesday in the Minnesota Senate amid legal concerns.

The bill is one of several in play this year to stiffen welfare requirements or hold recipients to tougher accountability standards. Republicans are pushing the changes, they say, as cost-saving and fraud-prevention measures, but Democratic lawmakers are resisting them as degrading to society's poorest.

Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Brainerd, agreed to the waiting-period legislation on hold after a spirited back-and-forth with opponents about its practicality. The bill was under consideration by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.

It would have doubled an existing 30-day residency requirement before someone could access state-provided welfare assistance, using anecdotal reports to argue that the state is a magnet for people seeking more generous help.

"I do want to prevent those coming to Minnesota getting that benefit automatically that we have reserved for Minnesotans," he said.

His bill also would have required that debit-style benefit cards include a recipient's photograph.

Advocates for welfare recipients said concerns over benefits-driven migration were unfounded. They also pointed to court cases that found some waiting limits to be unconstitutional because of hardships caused.

Two decades ago, Minnesota tried to impose a six-month waiting period but that was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court as unconstitutional. In that case and others, the court frowned on durational residency requirements so long that they inhibited travel or ran afoul of equal protection standards. A 60-day period once adopted by Wisconsin lawmakers withstood a state court challenge there.

Sen. Jeffrey Hayden, a Minneapolis Democrat, said lawmakers need more than anecdotal evidence about people moving to the state simply for welfare before making requirements more rigid. Other Democrats said the waiting period could be particularly troubling to those living in temporary housing or shelters who need extra time to establish residency.

Mark Toogood, an official with the Minnesota Department of Human Services, told committee members that Minnesota's monthly benefits were on par or slightly worse than neighboring states.

Debra Howze of the Welfare Rights Committee said the various bills restricting state assistance stigmatized poor people and come off as mean-spirited toward the most vulnerable.

"It's not like applying for a fishing license," said Howze, a past welfare recipient herself. "We apply for these programs for survival."

Another welfare proposal that has yet to get a hearing would require drug screening for program applicants and allow counties to do random testing. Those who test positive would be temporarily denied benefits.

Meanwhile, the House Public Safety and Finance Committee advanced a bill Thursday requiring law enforcement officers to report when a person arrested for a crime possesses more than one electronic benefit card.

Bill sponsor Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, said the legislation was a crackdown on potential welfare fraud. Department of Human Services officials said they have encountered cases where a person was caught with more than one card.

"This is just an attempt to make sure that we are not operating in silos but instead communicating with one another so that we make sure that fraud is not being committed and that those precious resources that we have can be dedicated to those that need the help," Anderson said.

Democrats on the committee said they worried such a law would target people carrying cards for family members or dependents who cannot do their own shopping.

"It clearly, clearly, targets people who are struggling to get by as it is," said Rep. Kerry Gauthier of Duluth.

___

Associated Press writer Alexandra Tempus contributed to this report.

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